Gangsta Geeks

Unofficially, Gangsta Geeks is just an arbitrary group of people who listen to gangsta rap when they code. Normally, I would write some other things here, but I'm worried they might be considered offensive on this particular Wiki Wiki Web (and in society in general) so I'll restrain myself.

Ever compared your defect creation rate under, say, these circumstances:

Listening to gangsta rap;

Listening to Classical Music;

Listening to Bach;

Listening to Mozart;

Listening to Thrash;

Listening to White Noise;

Listening to Pink Noise;

Working In Silence?

For really useful data, do the cycle again, only this time work in pairs. Go around the cycle enough times to be sure. For expert advice designing the experiment, get Laurie Williams involved. Publish the article. -- Ron Jeffries

Peopleware by Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister includes a description of a similar experiment. One interesting result was that working with music inhibits creative thinking. The authors suggest that this is because the same side of the brain is used to both listen to music and think creatively.

I don't think this follows; for example, Stephen King, in his book 'On Writing', indicates that he listens to AC/DC and other heavy metal music while writing. Given the prolific output of this writer, it is hard to believe that working with music inhibits creative thinking. He does mention that he uses it as a means of putting up an aural barrier between his inner thoughts and distractions from the outside world. As such, perhaps how you listen is as important to the enhancement or degradation of creativity, as listening in the first place. -- Malcolm Campbell

That shows that it doesn't make creative thinking impossible. It does not show that it does not reduce creative thinking or make creative thinking more difficult.

As compared to silence, I'd agree. As compared to typical office background noises, I find that Good Thinking Music is less distracting than the conversation at the next desk.

What is thinking if not taking different viewpoints and seeing where do they point to an leave you? Music probably would let you think if whenever you wanted to think about a viewpoint, you could hear to music that incentived you to think that way. You want to see the plus side of what you are doing, listen to Mozart. You want see the minus side of what you are doing, listen to some Gansta Rap.

When I'm trying to figure out how to do something, silence is best, but music is better than background chatter. Once I know what to do, I work better and faster when listening to something like Nine Inch Nails. For me there seem to be two separate flows, a Flow Of Doing, which is very Zen (means, zero introspection), and a Flow Of Thinking, which is very analytical, creative and explorative. -- Shae Erisson

Here is a paraphrase of an actual conversation I had back in my twenties, while playing a Game Of Go with a peer who spent most of his awake-time in an altered state of consciousness:

"Wow, you are an awesome programmer when you're stoned, I can't write a single line when I'm high. What are you like when you code while straight?"

After a very long and thoughtful pause...

"Gee - I don't know. I started smoking dope before I started programming. I've never tried coding without being high."


My partner loves "new age" music, specifically the kind that sounds to me like instrumental chord washes that go on forever (see Wall Of Keyboards). To him, this music is relaxing and it helps him get work done. He's noticeably more productive when he hears this kind of music.

I'm the opposite. If I hear this kind of "new age" music, it will totally block my ability to work. I'll find I catch myself doing all sorts of silly things I don't normally do. I'll catch myself reading and rereading a single paragraph over and over, as if I'm stuck in a groove and can't get out. My typing speed drops and I have more spelling errors. I can't remember details I normally have no problem with. And forget about doing anything creative.

You might think this is simply because I don't like this kind of "new age" music. But it's more than that - I don't like Country and Western music at all, but when coworkers play it around me it doesn't bother me. What's going on here?

Music isn't just patterns of frequencies and silence of various durations. Music is a language. It has a structure. (If it didn't have structure, it would be called noise.) Our brains interpret this structure. This is fundamental to the neural wiring of our brains. We're living signal processors, constantly trying to correlate the inputs from our senses, trying to make it all make some kind of sense.

So maybe my partner's ability to work with "new age" music is because his brain can understand the patterns typical of that musical genre. I apparently can't. My brain is overloaded trying to sync up to the language in the music, and it affects my ability to do other things.

I see this when we talk about music. He'll discuss a particular "new age" artist's style, and I'll only hear the overt elements in the music that he's talking about - totally missing the more subtle information. But then he'll point it out, and sure enough, it's there. It works the opposite way too. I like more harsh beat-oriented industrial bands. To him, it all sounds the same. But he's missing out on details in the music that I can pick up immediately. I point them out, and he'll go, "oh yeah, now I can hear that."

So getting back to the title of this page, it doesn't surprise me at all that some people might like Gangsta Rap music while they work. Unless your brain is tuned to the structure in that music, you simply won't "get it." Yes, Gangsta Rap lyrically has offensive themes, but they are overt elements of the music and probably not the reason why people who listen to it at work like it. They're probably hearing something deeper in the structure that you don't. Maybe they're picking up on the beat frequency of the rapper's vocal stresses against the beat. Maybe the distribution of frequencies in the music has a profile that their brains pick up on that you don't.

This is a non-judgemental way of looking at music, and probably more of what happens when your ear and brain start decoding the signal in the music. At the neural level, you're not hearing a rapper talking about "bustin' a cap in yo' ass" if the protagonist of the song invades his turf. Instead, you're hearing percussive beats with a particular spectral signature, laid next to a bassline that has some timing relationship to the beats. You're hearing a pattern of vocal stresses form a third rhythm. And you've got each of these sounds played with particular amplitudes relative to each other with elements that come and go according to probabilities that evolve according to the rules of the artist or larger genre.

So much for music being about a feeling. It's all just math!

Working with music only works if you are trained to phase it out. Long-time habits like listening to the radio at about any time (pleading guilty :) will increase your ability to phase out. Also, constant "noise" like music is much better to phase out than intermittent noise, like the finger-drumming, foot-thumping, pencil-clacking of my beloved co-workers that drives me insane. Amplitude is not so much of a factor, timing is. -- Juergen Hermann

That would explain why my wife doesn't like the TV on when she's trying to read a book, and I don't like silence when I'm trying to read (or code, or whatever). She didn't watch much TV as a child, and so now, whenever it's on, she feels compelled to watch it, whereas I often had one playing, so I don't even notice it's there unless I pay attention to it. It leads to some interesting discussions about what the state of the TV should be at any given time when we're both home. ;)

Same for me, I didn't grow up watching TV, so I have to really watch it. My best friend has tried to train me to not be a video zombie, but I've never built up an immunity. -- Shae Erisson

Try renting "Battlefield Earth" sometime, and setting it to play on repeat. You'll either learn to ignore it _really_ quickly, or go completely homicidally insane. Either way, I live in a different country, so I'm safe. ;)

If I had to listen to music, I would prefer simple music that doesn't make demands on the listener. Maybe the Ramones or Erik Satie would be okay. Rap can be okay as long as its beats are meditative and constant. Over all, I tend not to listen to any music. In my mind, I am already listening to as well as composing music when I am working on code. Just as I would not listen to two songs at the same time, or compose one song while listening to another, I cannot program and listen to music very well. Both are creatively immersive experiences for me. The worst scenario is when music is piped directly into my brain-pan through head-phones. Zow! At least with speakers the sound is more environmental, around your head but not in it. Not that he shares these opinions, but I should mention that a conversation with Ward helped me to give shape to some of these ideas. -- Robert Di Falco

Could you paraphrase that conversation here?

I would have to think to hard to do that. The conversation wasn't directly related to this discussion but more about composing music and writing code. I'll put a book mark here and maybe when I have more time will come back to it. -- rad

Absolutely fascinating. I find that I can often concentrate better with headphones on than off. My "internal" explanation has been that the music gives my emotional side something to chew on, which keeps it from distracting my thinking side. This works best when all I really need is to block out distractions, stay In The Zone, and Type Faster. I have found it only works with music I already know by heart. New music begs attention from my thinking side for analysis. The kind of music doesn't matter - country or classical, English or Japanese (eg, understandable words or not), anything that's well known will work.

This matches what has been said above. "Music that doesn't make demands on the listener" is key, and that depends upon the listener more than people realize at first. There is no reason that Ramones would work for me, any more than "new age" works for John. If your brain can't parse the music without demanding extra attention, it will be too distracting to work to.

I hadn't really thought about whether music detracts from my creativity. I know I can do a lot of my coding, refactoring, and debugging while listening to music, so in that sense I can be creative and listen to music. At least, I've never felt I was not creative while listening to musc. Yet I think most design work I do with a diagram I do with headphones off. I've never really thought about it. I just take 'em off if I need to. And put 'em on if I need to. (I'll pay more attention in the future and update this if I discover anything.)

Plus, headphones can block distracting conversations. I cannot work with the TV on. Our production floor has the TV constanly blaring financial "news" at our users. When I have to work out there, it's just bad. I'll find myself stalled half way through entering a command line, watching the TV. I could never write code out there. It would be torture.

John, I appreciate your analysis of gangsta rap. I knew there must be something there that I was missing, because it doesn't make sense that people would listen to it just for the offensive lyrics. Now I know that someone else thinks there is something there they can't see as well. -- Louis Thomas

When doing routine coding that does not require any thinking I find monotonous Drum And Bassmusic very good as background music. Try the D&B channel. However if I do serious coding that requires thinking I prefer silence.

-- Tim Visare

I've tried programming to Modern Jazz before, like Freddie Hubbard. That doesn't work out too well. Programming to something like Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, or Booker T & The MGs works for me. Lately it's been The Who and The Kinks.

Correction: it's ALWAYS the Who and the Kinks. I doubt your selection is based upon any perceived efficiency gain.

(Jeff Hunt here again) WRONG, Tracy. Didn't you notice the unusually high number of Man Or Astro Man songs I was playing today? (18 October 2000)

I call my headphones my "virtual cubicle". It helps when people are randomly yelling across the office. However, if I'm tired, music will put me to sleep, no matter how loud or fast or bass it is. Then again, I'm famous for sleeping with the lights on and the stereo jacked. -- Sunir Shah

There are times when I can't stand any music while programming, and there are times when I badly need some "Hard Core" stuff like Techno or Punk Rock. Especially when it is a boring coding task, where one can't simply abstract things, but has to code line after line after line (do this, than do that, then do this ...) I need music. The music has to "hurt" my brain so the !@#$%^&* piece of code doesn't.

This page ignores the obvious question. It seems to me that programmers are more likely than other professions to enjoy gangsta rap. That's the basis for the stereotype. The big questions is, why? -- Eric Hodges

What data do you have to support that hypothesis? (It seems to me...)

the register has already done this experiment - and - must get back to my rush cd now -- James Keogh

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