on programming with music

I get asked often how I work while listening to music, or how someone can even truly concentrate without silence, let alone with music.

My response is: I can’t code without music. It gives me pleasure, drive, and a much needed frame of reference.

Best friends.

Best friends.

I’m an avid music listener. Absolutely, absolutely obsessed. I can’t go a day without hearing some of them pleasurable sounds. I used to think it could distract me, but more often than not I want to be distracted. Yet it seems to fail to do that for me now, preferring instead to merge into the happenings of the moment and tinge the air with something. And that something is something that I desperately love.

I can say without a doubt that I can listen to pretty much everything while coding. Most people will say that there’s good ‘programming music’ or good ‘studying music.’ Respectable, but I disagree. Most anything that’s good will be good programming music for me. Modest Mouse is just as good as My Bloody Valentine is as good as Death Grips for programming. The reasoning is that ‘it sounds good so it’s good.’ It doesn’t distract me. It makes me code faster and cleaner.

Programming with music has a neat side effect. My memories are very closely linked to what I was listening to at the time. I did the Zarvot AI listening to College Dropout and MBDTF by Kanye West. The menu system? Weezer’s Pinkerton. When I did wide sweeping tweaks to the entire projectile balance? The Microphones. It’s funny—I know more or less exactly what I was listening to when making parts of my games. Either I will recall the tunes from memory, or I can glance through my commit messages, which frequently are one-liners from what I was listening to as I synched my project. (Note: very bad idea if there are other people. Use good commit messages, please don’t be me.)

Music helps me keep a clear mind and gives me a real, tasty sense of progress. It’s surprising how much it helps, if you don’t let it distract you, but allow it to guide you and be part of the experience. It shouldn’t be there as background noise, but as a rhythm to cheer you on. No, that doesn’t mean it have to be inspirational post-rock (but it can be), it just means it’s there as a friend.

And that’s great. You can always go back and reminisce with friends. Nowadays, I’ll listen to LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, and go “oh yeah, remember that time you wrote that crazy conversation tree system from scratch in a day? That was great.”

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