Let’s get this out of the way right now: There is only one musician who can accurately be described as creating the perfect music for coding, and his name is Richard D. James. You may know him better as Aphex Twin. There can be no argument about this. But it is entirely possible to become sick of Aphex Twin and listen to other music while developing software; an abundance of code-inducing sounds are available in the pantheon of the muse, from Prefuse 73 to Debussy.
But Aphex Twin is the quintessential hacker music. You’ve heard of bands hiding secret meanings in their albums: Satanic messages or endorsements for drug use, which could only be heard if a specific piece of a specific song is played backwards? Real or fake, the Beatles supposedly did it first.
In the future, such rumors will be spread about a tactic used by Aphex Twin in the song “Windowlicker.” A less eloquent description can be seen here.
Richard D. James actually encoded an image into the waveform of his music. It’s a screaming face.
This touches on a point of contention in the music world. With the Pitchfork Media crowd, the music snobbery code of conduct would dictate that we only listen to brilliant musicians with a keen ability to bring their talent to bear upon unexplored waters. It also dictates that I write the rest of this blog entry in haughty, condescending tone, using large words and referencing other music without explanation.
But as a pure software developer, or really as anyone who must concentrate for extended periods of time might say, music should be a Zen experience. As a supplement to a workday, the right sounds can place the listener into a trance, where keyboard and fingers become one.
The definition of “right” obviously varies from person to person. There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. And thus it is incumbent upon any developer who works in an office to have good headphones.
Personally, I like music without words. I prefer music without lyrics, generally, unless those lyrics are incredibly clever and original. But it is those good lyrics that distract me from the task at hand. I’m much more of a soundscape person.
It is for this reason that my approach to writing this list of the best music to code by begins with Aphex Twin, and ends with Bach’s “A Musical Offering.” I certainly hope you can understand the interest, from an engineering and mathematical standpoint. Under the assumption that you can grasp the significance of both of these musical offerings, I shall plow ahead without mentioning them further.
If you’ve never heard Prefuse 73 before, you’re not going to like him, initially. His form of DJing is rife with jump cuts, ADHD wiggles, and the constant need to move onto the next groove. Scott Herren, the titular 73rd personified, stumbles upon funky beats, remains in place only momentarily, then drives the song into a wall and reassembles the pieces. It’s frenetic, and often composed of the broken-down leftovers other DJs would ignore. It’s as if Herren picks up all the end pieces and scraps of a previous DJ’s cutting sessions, then builds songs out of those bits and bobs.
That’s not to say that Prefuse 73 is without full songs composed of the same beats and hooks all the way through. “Choking You,” from One Word Extinguisher, is an absolute masterpiece of Herren’s cutting abilities.