Robert Tamayo


Music for Programming

A while back I saw a post on Hacker News called "Music for Programming". It turned out there is a site called just that – – and it has some very good music for programming. Their about page lays out their philosophy; the best music for programming is a mix of several different styles, but the music is generally ambient, droning, uses arpeggios, and lacks a clear melody.

I agree with that sentiment, and of course I have my own recommendations for music to listen to while programming. One note: I don't use Sound Cloud or other music streaming services for music. I prefer YouTube, where I can find the real niche video game soundtracks.

Instrumental Music

This isn't really a recommendation; it's just a rule. While trying to focus on something, it's important to listen to instrumental music. I prefer instrumental music over vocals anyways, so this isn't really a difficult decision to make when choosing music to listen to.

The key here is something I heard from the Game Theory YouTube channel ages ago: your brain can only focus on one piece of linguistic information at a time. So you can't read and listen to someone at the same time. If you think you are, you're not. For programmers, it means you can't effectively listen to a podcast and think linguistically about your code at the same time. There is at least some connection between reading and writing code and the linguistic parts of our brains, and so you always risk getting distracted by the singing.

The exception to this is of course if you are listening to vocals in a foreign language. As long as you don't speak the language and have never tried learning it, you will at least not be able to get distracted by what is being said in the song. You can still, however, process it as language, and just like a baby you will start to repeat the lyrics in your head. Your brain is smart enough to recognize language.

Video Game Soundtracks

On YouTube you can find tons of great video game music compilations and even OSTs to many great games. I prefer the OSTs of Nintendo games or the "relaxing" mixes of other modern games. One of my favorite discoveries early on was the Vapidbobcat YouTube channel, which contains mixes of video game music themed by environments, such as forest music and desert music. 

I also have really enjoyed the original Ratchet and Clank OST, Spyro Reignited Trilogy OST, Baba is You OST, all of the Luigi's Mansion OSTs, Yoshi's Wooly World OST, Yooka-Laylee OST (from both games), and pretty much anything by David Wise.

Some video game music can get too hectic with the melodies, or they can become too intense. This happens for some games more than others, but the worst experience is when one song is relaxing and the next one is the boss battle. For this reason, I prefer to find "relaxing" mixes when possible.

Isochronic Tones

When I really need an edge, isochronic tones are the way to go. Isochronic tones can be found on YouTube to listen to, and there are plenty of channels with videos well-labeled for their particular use.

When choosing an isochronic tone mix for programming, choose one made for "focus", not "relaxation". You don't want to fall asleep!

Instrumental Deep House

I prefer the Deep House mixes by Johnny M on YouTube. These mixes are usually instrumental, and they feature solid grooves to serve as excellent background music for programming. I prefer these mixes when I know I have to write a lot of code. The consistent beat keeps me focussed and writing with a rhythm.

Trance and Electronic

For trance, I'm going to plug my buddy here and recommend Exist in Sound. He made the music for my game Revolve Ping Pong. Whenever I need to get into the RGB headspace required for hardcore game programming, I listen to his stuff to kick it off. It drives the creative part of your brain that enjoys code because it is a digital universe.

I also enjoy PsyChamber on YouTube. They make great mixes of psybient, ambient, chill, and trance music. This kind of music is great when you need to "explore" your code to solve a problem or do something you aren't too sure about.

Other good electronic styles depend on the mood. When I get super sleepy and still need to push through and write some code, Chill Step is always there for me. When I need a kick to get me going for a long coding session, I use Liquid DnB to channel my energy into 160 beats per minute of code. Sound Territory makes some great Liquid DnB mixes on YouTube.

Fantasy Themed Music

The Fiechters make some great music for almost any fantasy theme you can think of. I use them if I want to feel like a medieval blacksmith, or if I want to feel like I'm in an elven forest, or if it's Halloween and I need some haunted pumpkin patch music to listen to. They have tons of music, and it is perfect for enjoyable coding music for any mood.

Cafe Sounds

There are some times when I prefer to have the feeling of being in a slightly noisy cafe while coding. There are studies that show that light background sounds such as found in cafes, restaurants, and parks can actually boost our creativity and focus. This isn't a common go-to for me, but it is still a worthy option for the right occasions.

No Music

Sometimes my headphones have been on for hours, and there isn't any music playing. Sometimes silence is the best playlist for coding. Also, the habit of putting on headphones and listening to music to code creates a pathway in our brain similar to addiction. Having the headphones on triggers the "work mode" in us. So, never forget that no music is always an option.


Experiment with other types of music. I'm always looking out for great instrumental bands to listen to, even while not coding. Let me know if you find something I might be interested in.
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