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Music For Airports (Or Coding)

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Craig Harbottle, Englishman, Frontend Engineer

July 22, 2019


In 1975 psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi identified a state of intense focus and concentration particularly conducive to high level performance and productivity and - perhaps mindful of the difficulties colleagues had pronouncing his own name - coined it ‘flow’. Yes, ‘flow’. Laymen and/or American sportsmen may refer to this concept intuitively as ‘being in the zone’. Jazz or funk musicians, perhaps, as ‘being in the groove’. But, nomenclature aside, all point to the idea of tapping into a focused, controlled, immersed, intense, and ‘autotelic’ experience to maximise performance. MC even wrote a book about it: ‘ Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’, and psychologists ever since have been utilising its wisdom to improve performance in areas such as Education, Karate, and playing computer games (possibly involving Karate).

But how can we humble developers achieve this ‘flow’ state in the modern, social, open-plan office which seems so antithetical? Perhaps go to the ‘chill out’ room? Too relaxed! Perhaps the kitchen? Too kitcheny! Or maybe we should take one colleague’s advice and go to the “office [K]eller” which are “much cooler and less noisy,” and benefit from having “no people, [and] no disturbance”. Or, maybe there’s another way? Enter one of mankind’s great creations: the headphones. Can these wondrous things, and the sanctuary they provide, offer a solution to our particular quandary? Indeed, a former colleague championed such an approach, referring to particularly taxing tickets as ‘headphone jobs’. And, give him his dues, with headphone, he was prolific.

Perhaps emboldened by these water-tight results from a sample of one, why not give it a try?

Now let’s consider some music to soundtrack our work. Analogous to another form of entertainment renowned for its breadth of search results, whatever word you type, Spotify will have a playlist for it. To test the theory, I type in ‘horse’ and sure enough, an abundance of music apropos our equine friends. And perhaps more expectedly, the case is true when I tap in ‘coding’ or ‘concentration’. Reams of results, my favourite title being ‘Coding and Crushing it’. Or, the imaginative ‘Music to Code By’. Yet, whilst these playlists are usually decent, they do change almost daily. The ‘L.P.’, however, is reliably immutable so, without further ado, here are five of my own suggestions to get you into a zone. Maybe ‘the’ zone.

Brian Eno - Music For Airports

I watched a very good documentary about Brian Eno recently which made the claim that each of his most productive periods were in and around times of serious illness. One such period resulted in the groundbreaking ‘ambient’ Music For Airports. Composed of four pieces, the album taps into the looping techniques pioneered by Steve Reich and the sparse piano works of composers such as Erik Satie. The result is a record full of soul and, crucially, space, making for a unique, immersive, engaging listen. No doubt this was music conceived in the midst of a fever. Brian Eno is a fascinating musician - lacking in any formal training and instinctive in his compositional style. He is also a constant reminder that men with huge foreheads have written some of the most important synth music of the twentieth century. A masterpiece.

Aphex Twin - Ambient Works

Not sure there’s much I can write about this that hasn’t already been written. I have always used this album to work to. It’s repetitive, deep, yet discrete. Despite being dance music, a genre usually synonymous with high tech production, this record is patently not that, something that has in fact been a point of criticism for many dance music purists. Idiots. Take my word, this will help you concentrate. Highly recommended.

Stars of the Lid - And their Refinement

I think that somewhere in the universe there is an alternate reality in which an alternate me is obsessed with and constantly watches some unnamed movie. It tells the story of a boy making his way home across some vast, snowy, glacial landscape, with only a walkman and his headphones for company. But this movie has no sound, no soundtrack. But this is no bad thing, for the absence is evocative. I like to think the alternate me is presently writing the inverse of these sentences. Nevertheless, it’s great music to work to: unobtrusive, spacious, gentle.

Brad Fiedel - ‘The Terminator’ soundtrack

Film soundtracks are great to code to. They are usually mostly wordless and contain repeated motifs which are familiar, pleasing, and unobtrusive. There are plenty I could have chosen: John Carpenter - ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, Ry Cooder - ‘Paris, Texas’, Vangelis - ‘Bladerunner’, Nico Rota - ‘The Godfather’, Wendy Carlos - ‘The Shining’, and any of the Tarantino films soundtracks are also jolly good fun to tap the keys to. However, I chose this one, as it reminds me of my first dev job, and I worked to it all the time. It’s epic, atmospheric synth music. As a German IoT company, we’ll almost certainly be responsible for some sort of computer-security-breach-Deutsch-voiced-killer-robot-uprising. But if the music is this good, who cares?

Spooky Black - Leaving

This is my ‘curve ball’. I think this young man was a peroxide blonde 16 year old when he wrote this. It’s D.I.Y-recorded, lo-fi, scratchy, heavily reverberated guitar music, accompanied by equally lo-fi sub bass patterns. Each song is concise, hymnal, and hypnotic, marked by an almost jarring brevity. I don’t really like the phrase ‘it’s like a cross between X and Y’, but I’ll use it in the absence of any better reader-friendly way to express musical cross-pollination. So, here goes. It’s like a cross between Mount Kimbie, My Bloody Valentine, the Screwed Up Click, and some divine all-boy choir singing Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Ceremony of Carols’. Lyrically, however, it is what it is: the bedroom sketches of a teenager trying to replicate his RnB heroes. My recommendation? Forgive the naivety. Don’t listen to the lyrics literally, listen to them musically, as pure sound. That’s how it works best in my opinion - as some wondrous drone. But feel free to skip the third song.

Thanks for reading.

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