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iPods increase performance?


The Winter Olympics motto is Passion lives here, and music plays a big role. (Yes, despite my lack of TV I found a way to watch the snowboarding and last night's ice skating.) It seems you can't swing a cat in Torino without hitting an iPod.

First it was the US snowboarders, who have iPod controls built into their Olympic uniforms (some even had the tunes coming through their helmets). And no, it wasn't Apple sponsorship. These riders need the tunes to compete. I had originally assumed it was just a warm-up thing, but many of them actually have it playing during their event. A Baltimore Sun story explains that when halfpipe gold winner Hannah Teter announced that during her gold-winning performance she was listening to a song from her boyfriend's band, it immediately sent 37,000 hits to the band's Strive Roots blog.

But last night, I couldn't help notice that the fabulous young skater Sasha Cohen was warming up and staying focused with her iPod. She couldn't wear it during her performance, but she spent that agonizing endless time before she skated (she was dead last) loosening up, singing along, and blocking out everything including the other competitors' performance.

So what is it about music and performance?

From the Sun article:
"Experts say the proliferation of iPods this Olympics merely highlights the long-standing relationship between athletes and music. Competitors have long been known to rock out before performances or during practices, in order to relax or reach their ideal 'arousal levels', according to Sam Zizzi, a professor of sports and exercise psychology..."

[There's another good article about the Olympic iPod thing at the New York Times]

And it's not just athletic performance--I bet way more than half of you use music to focus or stay motivated whether it's coding to drum n' bass with LTJ Buken, or cooking to Beethoven's seventh, must of us have a soundtrack to go with our passion or being in flow.

Music tells us what to feel. Without music and sound design, most movies lose their emotional pull. One of the more obivous sound design examples is the 5/4 drum beat used in the Lord of the Rings movies. Think back to the Orcs... the Isengard Theme and Mordor 5/4 asymetric beat would have made you feel very uncomfortable regardless of the visuals. Your body does NOT like it. (For non-musicians, here's a midi example of 5/4, slowed way down so it's not as disturbing, but you'll still get the idea.)

But sound is still the forgotten stepchild of multimedia, among non-professionals. Everybody is at least an amateur photographer now, but where's the FlickR equivalent for music? (Although breakthrough products like Garageband are a huge first step... finally.) More and more students today are expected to develop a greater visual/graphics sensibility than ever before, but music is still seen as "for musicians"--for those who play an instrument. Then again, there is a bright spot that the definition of "instrument" is changing thanks to turntablism...

So back to Olympic athletes, music, and passion... there's still a big debate over the whole Mozart effect, and the effect of music on learning and retention. But at the very least, music (or even white noise) can help you focus and concentrate and stay in flow by blocking out other distractions. The problem with higher-level cognition and music is when the music itself becomes too distracting, so I normally prefer music with no or very unobtrusive vocals if I need to think. If it's just about staying awake, give me something faster than my heart beat!

I'd love to hear what kind of music (or silence) you prefer when you want to focus and stay in flow. What works for you?

Posted by Kathy on February 22, 2006 | Permalink


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Back when I was still young, I would listen to 10,000 Maniacs when I was writing essays late at night. I would always try to time it so that "These Are The Days" would begin playing around sunrise, right as I was finishing my papers.

I have no idea if it helped, but I found the ritual comforting, and I never missed a deadline.

Posted by: Chris Yeh | Feb 22, 2006 10:22:20 PM

Mark Cuban wrote a related entry, noting how the lack of music at the NBA All Star game sucked the energy out of the building: http://www.blogmaverick.com/entry/1234000070073552/

Whenever I need to bang out some srrrious code, I set my iTunes to repeat on Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory. Really gets me going.

Posted by: Carlo | Feb 22, 2006 10:31:33 PM

Jimmy Buffet
Texas Music Mix
Steel drum band
Occasionally - classic

Posted by: GP | Feb 22, 2006 10:57:19 PM

Long time rss-er, first time comment-er. I just bought an iPod nano. I love it. At work, went for a trail run with it this morning, it's great. I feel music is distracting and throughs my balance off or something when skiing or mountain biking though. And for working, I can listen a variety of genres, but if I really have to focus or think hard I need to listent to classical or something mellow with no lyrics...maybe a bit of opera because I can't understand it;-)

Great blog! Keep on rockin!

Posted by: Andre Charland | Feb 22, 2006 11:40:02 PM

Well, whenever someone mentions Isengard, I think of this remix: http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/hobbits :-)

Posted by: Jan | Feb 23, 2006 1:37:48 AM

Depends on what I'm doing, usually - if it's working out, I'll usually have either Prodigy, Slipknot, Dead Kennedys or System of a Down. If it's coding or investigating a live support issue, maybe some Ibiza or Goa trance on a continuous mix. Although sometimes I might go for Miles Davis, Mozart or Seize The Day.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Feb 23, 2006 4:00:42 AM

When coding for my Final Year Project at university I used to listen to a lot of the streams over at www.soma.fm.

I'd love to listen to the late night Secret Agent stream when bashing out the code. Then when I started to get anxious about deadlines and things not working I would chill with some Groove Salad or Beat Blender.

Ah if only I could get into that mind set when I'm at work.

Posted by: Joe Tague | Feb 23, 2006 5:47:11 AM

I completely agree with your preference for unobtrusive or no vocals. I listen to anime sound tracks when I do any activity that requires high concentration (school work, coding, and gaming).

Here is another interesting bit: I find that, given songs of the same genre, I work best when a song is not in my mother tongue (Cantonese). I guess I simply don't pay as much attention to the lyrics when they are not in my mother tongue. I suspect it is because I cannot evaluate as well the singing quality when songs are sung in other languages (e.g. where the stresses should be put, whether the natural pitch of a syllable matches goes well with a note, etc.)

Posted by: Kal | Feb 23, 2006 5:56:51 AM

As with Andre, I'm a long-time feed reader and first (or second?) time poster. I have to say that when I need to work on creative projects or when I hit a rut I dive into the celtic/celtic rock mix. Bands like the Glengarry Bhoys, Greenwich Meantime and Lunasa get my blood pumping with the passion they express when they play.

Posted by: John | Feb 23, 2006 6:18:54 AM

Wow, as someone with a couple of degrees in music, I found this article fascinating. As a non-discursive language, music is a great focusing agent for many people. It allows them to emote without direct involvement of specific ideas. Our society is great at that. Great article.

And yeah, where is the flickr music page? Someone could definitely do something with that.

Listening to now:
The Myriad (Indie Rock)
Miles Davis (late fifties sessions)

BTW, I caught the reference to flow. I love that book.

Posted by: Paul | Feb 23, 2006 6:28:22 AM

I normally get to work out of my home office where I tend to have the TV on all day. When onsite at a client facility or my company's offices I tend to listen to my MP3 player (not an iPod) on random shuffle all day long. I find I can't focus on coding without one or more items of external stimulation (TV, Music). The music is a little bit better overall in that it provides the stimulation without requiring me to look up and check out what is on screen every now and then and the type of music doesn't seem to make much of a difference to me (I have classical, rock, new age, jazz, blues, reggae, and soundtracks including South Park on my MP3 player).

Posted by: Craig | Feb 23, 2006 6:31:37 AM

The best music for getting into the flow is Lindsay Buckland


He's a musician living in Melbourne, Australia and he plays ALL the instruments on his songs. Great background music when you need to be in the flow.

Check it out.



Posted by: Victor Stachura | Feb 23, 2006 6:39:27 AM

I do not know how to write a single line of code without listening to Cradle of Filth or In Flames or Children of Bodom.

When my work is paper based instead of Computer based: October Project, Michael Lington or David Koz is my choice.

Diferent styles for diferent needs that is the beauty of music.

Posted by: Jorge Alvarez | Feb 23, 2006 7:36:01 AM

Err... "Take 5" by Paul Desmond is in 5/4 and it's not particularly disturbing. Overplayed, but not disturbing.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 23, 2006 7:56:54 AM

I also like to listen to music when working, preferrrably things like mum, sigur ros etc.

But what helps me even more, is to take short breaks and play some music myself. I'm a guitar player, and just playing around on my guitar for a few minutes without thinking about what I play, helps me to sort my mind... after which I can continue working more focused.

btw, check out www.mimosa.tk for my own music...

Posted by: Jef | Feb 23, 2006 8:14:32 AM

The Go! Team. Lately. Keeps me in the flow, I can't get enough. Imagine an indie rock band playing distorted 70's covers with a bunch of cheerleaders singing vocals while skipping rope. Wow.

I have a blog of my music at ournewrockkitty.com, but it's unlikely to keep anyone in the flow!

Posted by: Raymond Brigleb | Feb 23, 2006 8:28:56 AM

My kids attend a Montessori gradeschool where listening to music and playing the piano is an important part of every day. Montessori taps into their natural curiosity and my kids are passionate learners as a result. I'm hoping they will keep that passion for a lifetime.

As an equestrian vaulter, I see our young athletes literally transformed from gangly and awkward teenagers into exquisite dancers on top of a cantering horse when we crank up the tunes in the arena. Talk about increased performance! The kids choose their own music. So we have a wide range. From Afro-celt to rap.

For me--whether I'm writing or riding my horses--it's anything Celtic. That music makes me think in big broad strokes and seems to open up the possibilities ...

Posted by: I Gallop On | Feb 23, 2006 8:35:09 AM

I always have music on. Always. Between my car stereo, my headphones, and my computer system, I have music on nearly 24/7. When I was in High School my parents were always trying to get me to take my headphones off while I was studying. They said it was distracting. I said it was essential.

Posted by: Daniel Nicolas | Feb 23, 2006 8:42:17 AM

Depends on the task. For reading or writing, either silence or wordless music. (Although classical, jazz, and folk are all options - it's not so much the quality of the music as that human voice which distracts me.)

On the other hand, for coding and web design, or other jobs which require a different kind of attention, vocal music is fine.

(And I firmly believe that what is or isn't a "weird" tempo is culturally conditioned, even if it produces a physiological affect. Odd-numbered tempos frequently indicate non-American cultures - 7/4 and 9/4 can have a "Latin" feel, which can be very pleasant.)

Posted by: Joe | Feb 23, 2006 9:05:57 AM

You may want to do some more research -- I recall some kind of study which claimed to show that people who did an intellectual task performed better without music, but they thought they did better with music. Supposedly music tricks the brain into thinking it's thinking. Personally I can't do any kind of mental work while listening to music -- it demands and deserves attention!

Posted by: doug | Feb 23, 2006 9:07:01 AM

I have a strange one (or at least other people think so!). I put on the eponymous first album by Azure Ray.


REALLY mellow and beautiful. Other people who hear it wonder how I can stay awake, let alone focus. But I find that the loops and vocals in songs like "Sleep" and "Rise" (never noticed that dichotomy until today) just clear my mind and allow me to concentrate and ignore stress. I <3 Azure Ray!

Posted by: Brian | Feb 23, 2006 9:17:35 AM

When I was younger I enjoyed having a soundtrack on all the time. Now that I'm older I'm much more selective and I find background music is often distracting. Part of it is that I have my own soundtrack that my brain generates by itself.

In some ways my information appetite has expanded at the expense of the ability to enjoy music. I used to listen to classical music in the car. This is now mostly impossible, and I surf between NPR and Sirius Satellite news stations.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Feb 23, 2006 9:31:08 AM

"I normally prefer music with no or very unobtrusive vocals if I need to think." Totally agree. When coding I find that electonica such as Boards of Canada and The Future Sound of London is the sort of music that helps get me into a flow state.

I'm another long-time-reader-but-first-time-commenter so can I just take this opportunity to say many thanks for your books and this excellent blog - both are just what I need to renew my enthusiasm for what I do, even after it has been trampled all over by the PHB.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 23, 2006 9:46:15 AM

I agree. Music is powerful in many ways.

I've read a book that says kids involved in music (choir or by playing an instrument) do better in school. I can see how music improvisation increases creativity, dexterity if you're playing an instrument, and math skills since notes are fractions.

As far as listening to music I used to listen to Kate Bush when I was coding. Sometimes I like to listen to instrumental music better because I find I'm less distracted from lyrics.

I juggle recreationally and I find it's easier for people who I teach to juggle to listen to music while they're juggling too because juggling patterns have a rhythm as well and then they match the rhythm of the music in their pattern.

Posted by: Greg Ostravich | Feb 23, 2006 10:38:34 AM

My big fix, playing in the background often is Shawn Mullins. His new album just released, "9th Ward Pickin' Parlor" - very cool... You can listen to a few of the tunes and a great Acoustic version of Lullaby at his MySpace site:


I wrote about his song, "something to believe in" in a past blog...

My penchant for strong lyrics and acoustic guitar makes me pull up Jim Croce, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, John Denver, and Peter, Paul & Mary...

And he's playing the coffee house up the street from my house on March 20th - got my tickets already.

Posted by: Matthew Moran | Feb 23, 2006 10:51:47 AM

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