Silence: The Sweetest Melody

When you walk by my desk at the office, home, or even at Starbucks, chances are you’ll find me with my EarPods on. If I’m not on GotoMeeting or answering a phone call, I’m most likely listening to music.

This is a common sight in today’s open-concept offices at many high-tech companies — rows of engineers sitting (or standing) in front of their screens, isolated from the world by their headphones.

It’s not a surprise to most in the profession — while software development is a team effort, creative work and complex problem-solving often require periods of undisturbed attention. The idea behind the open-concept office is to remove barriers between employees, both physically and figuratively. This is a huge improvement over the infamous cubicle farms of decades ago, but many are starting to wonder if we pushed it too far. (And then there are some full-on skeptics).

Personally, I like an environment where I can mingle with the team, or even people from a completely different department, exchanging ideas while thinking about a problem, brainstorming an approach, or just shooting the breeze.

But when it comes down to banging out code, when focus and attention to detail is a must, I prefer a place where I can sit down and focus on the task undisturbed.

This is when music comes to play (pun intended), especially when there is no quiet nook available. Thankfully, there is no shortage of music — between online streaming services, iTunes, and even old, imported albums (yes, I’m that old), the supply seems almost infinite. I don’t really have any “go-to” stations, artists, or even genres — I’ll listen to just about anything. (I even know people who have a TV show or a YouTube video playing in the background while they work — wow!)

I do, however, find myself preferring certain type of music, subconsciously more than anything, for certain types of tasks (or rather, what I expect the task to entail).

Hunting for a bug? Examining lots of code, complex conditions or call graphs? Probably something slower, quieter and less expressive.

Laying down new structure, tying different pieces/components together, devising tests or writing new logic? Bring on something upbeat, fast and strong.

(I wonder if there’s more nuance to it, or even just a pattern, but I never really stopped to think about it until now.)

The funny thing is, if the music does its job — masking out any ambient conversations and noises — then often I don’t even realize what’s actually playing, or even when it stops!

It turns out that sometimes, the sweetest melody is silence.

How do you use music at work?