Issue #14 December 2005

Music to make code by

You've been there a dozen times before: A code freeze is coming. QA is anxious. An all-nighter awaits. Choose your music carefully. Do you turn up the volume and tune out the world? Or do you queue your chill-out playlist and find your zone?

We wanted to find the ultimate soundtrack to bring out your developer genius. So we asked for advice from a few music fans at Red Hat.

Granted, not that your choice of music at the right moment will make you a guru. But that never stopped anyone from busting out the Barry White, either. Ain't no shame in trying.

Writers are famous for this stuff—taking compulsive vices to the extreme in the endless search for creative genius. Hart Crane cranked up jazz 78s on his Victrola. Hemingway went for whiskey. Thoreau bought an ax and wandered into the woods.

So what makes a good heads-down headphone album? We offer our suggestions below. See if you agree.

What would you suggest instead? Enter this month's Red Hat Magazine contest. We'll post our favorite entries in the next issue.

Havoc Pennington, Software Engineer

For late-night coding sessions, don't judge Hüsker Dü by the Spinal Tap- style name—for blocking out distractions and staying awake, pop hooks buried in fast, loud noise can be just the thing. The Living End is my album of choice with the always-apropos song "Keep Hanging On" toward the end. Turn it up to 11.

For inspiration I always have to go with Dylan, a true original; whether it's the famous "Judas"/"I don't believe you, play f@&#!%g loud" moment most recently seen in Scorsese's No Direction Home, where Bob angers the folkies with his rock-and-roll, or years later angering the rock-and- rollers with all-gospel set lists. Whatever he's doing, Dylan does it all the way and sees what happens.

Ben Levenson, QA Engineer

I don't know if it is a hearing impairment or what, but without liner notes or Google, I'd have a next-to-nothing chance at deciphering most song lyrics. So over the years I've built up a large collection of rhyme- and word-free music—a nice backdrop for coding, contemplating and daydreaming. Here are a few selections... brought to you by the letter "S":

  • Sense: A View From a Vulnerable Place
    Beautiful soundscapes. Head over to for several freely downloadable tracks by this artist and many others (Yay! Creative Commons).
  • Satie, Erik: Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes
    The versions on "The Magic of Satie" performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet are quite nice.
  • Boards of Canada: Music Has the Right to Children
    I know it's a bit of a stretch to work this in on the "S" theme, but I had to mention it. Find a copy and listen.

And as long as I'm cheating:

  • Múm: Yesterday Was Dramatic - Today Is OK
    Sweet melodies from Iceland.

Brock Organ, Sr. QA Engineer

In the category of top-notch think music, Philip Glass has provided hackers with much to work with. For those who enjoy strong ensemble playing, Glassworks fittingly provides recursive musical structures in an ambitious iterative framework, while Solo Piano is a highly introspective and meditative work.

Finally, when the chips are down, nothing else will do, and the endless hours of ambient whale song/puppy dog/rustling leaf/cooing dove volume 423 has left you empty inside, consider the 3 disc operatic set Einstein on the Beach; but don't be surprised if the experience changes you permanently (Not recommended for children under the age of 12).

Greg DeKoenigsberg, Community Relations Manager

See, I have this problem: I sing along to music. Loud. In my truck that's fine; the only one hearing me sing Hank Williams is me. At work, though, there's a couple of problems: one, I'm thinking about the song instead of the work—and two, angry co-workers. Therefore, I tend to stick to music that either (a) has no lyrics, or (b) has lyrics in languages that I don't know, and therefore can't sing along to. Aphex Twin and Sigur Ros are perennial favorites. Also, the ogg vorbis stream of classical music from WCPE. Also, this, for hours on end.

Deborah Westmoreland, Editor, Red Hat Magazine

My development days started back in the summer of '95 when Mosaic landed in my lap in the media lab at the School of Information, University of Michigan. Gopher and Lynx were giving up the ghost and I was changing my concentration from reference librarian to multimedia maven. I didn't necessarily want to code but how else was I going to push a slide show, search an image database of musical instruments or create 360-degree nodes of museums? From dual boot to dual processors, passion led to obsession and finally we added a disco ball to the lab's fluorescent light. And if there's a spinning disco ball, there's music to code by.

It might seem a little dated, but Soundgarden rocked my work. "Rusty Cage" could generate a wakefulness rarely found except maybe at raves or in flotation tanks. The rebel with a cause attitude was also fueled by Urge Overkill, Guided by Voices and any sound with heartbeat, landslide and explosive motor.

These days the work is a bit different. There's fancy visual interfaces to work in sometimes. Code comes in libraries and the soundscape is different as well. It's dreamy (Deadbeat,Wildlife Documentaries ) and kinetic (Odd International) and locomotive (Lyrics Born) and a lot of it is original from friends who are accomplished musicians.

Mike Behm, Technical editor

I went around the office and talked to everyone who has headphones (which is far fewer people than you might think). The common theme is that the music chosen depends on the difficulty of the coding: for mechanical work, literally anything goes. As the work becomes more difficult, the music chosen becomes instrumental (and typically is classical). For work that requires creativity and concentration: turn off the music.

When I'm writing manuals, I don't play music; when I'm writing emails, music is fine—preferably something without lyrics and almost ambient; interesting, without being intrusive. Right now I'm listening to Zoar's In the Bloodlit Dark, which is just perfect. Occasionally I'll throw on Johnny Hollow. Under no circumstances will I ever play 16 Horsepower at work—the music is just too good to ignore.

Bascha Harris, Editor and web developer

When the headphones go on, it's serious business. For straight-out grooving-in-the-groove: Ruth Laredo's Complete Solo Piano Music, Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov was a Russian composer born in the late 1800s. It's classical music for someone who likes hard rock: pounding, loud, emotive. Few attempt his work due to its difficulty; Laredo (who recently passed away) was the first to record all of his solo works.

When something must be done yesterday: Marilyn Manson. Any of the later albums will do: Holy Wood, The Golden Age of Grotesque, or the moddish Mechanical Animals. Crunchy guitar, offbeat but addictive hooks, Manson screaming and howling—the cacophonous racket that somehow motivates. Go figure.

Jonathan Opp, Author of this article

I'm no developer, but for writing it's tough to beat jazz. Try John Coltrane's "Ole Coltrane," an 18-minute, bass-driven trance. And Johnny Griffin's Blowin Session, an entire album played at full speed. My favorite writing album: Radiohead's Kid A. It's Radiohead stripped to the electronic essential and then frozen. Or, for newer albums, check out Bloc Party's Silent Alarm Remixed, Animal Collective's Feels (think folk-electronica meets summer camp), or The Go! Team's Thunder, Lightning, Strike—an album so upbeat it has cheerleading. If that won't keep you motivated, music won't help.