Home > Creativity, Musings, Personal, Software > Noisy Work Environments are Counterproductive, But Compensating With Music Negatively Effects Creativity

Noisy Work Environments are Counterproductive, But Compensating With Music Negatively Effects Creativity

September 6th, 2008

Working in a noisy work environment and listening to music is counterproductive for intellectual demanding work. For example: we don’t write exams in busy cafeterias, or write resumes through loud movies, and Libraries are quiet for a reason. Noise; whether it be music or background noise does negatively affect your ability to get things done.

DeMarco and Lister (in Peopleware) present the results of an interesting experiment:

During the 1960s, researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests on the effects of working with music. … They put half of each group together in a silent room, and the other half of each group in a different room equipped with earphones and a musical selection.  Participants in both rooms were … given a programming problem …

They discovered that the majority of the people working in the silent room could pick out a pattern in the programming problem and could come to a quick clever creative solution. Whereas the people working with music playing were able to solve the problem, but didn’t make the creative leap.

They go on to explain:

Many of the everyday tasks performed by professional workers are done in the serial processing center of the left brain. Music will not interfere particularly with this work, since it’s in the brain’s holistic right side that digests music. But not all of the work is centered in the left brain. There is that occasional breakthrough that makes you say “Ahah!” and steers you toward an ingenious bypass that may save months or years of work. This creative leap involves right-brain function. If the right brain is busy listening [to music], the opportunity for a creative leap is lost.

In their book they also make the point that open space work environments and cubical farms are not conducive to knowledge work, and that all employees (or at least groups of employees) should have the ability to close their door. Great companies do follow these guidelines, but many of the smaller companies or transitional companies (at least the ones I’ve worked in) tend to air on the dilbertesque side (the noisy cubical farms / open concept).

To compensate for the noise in the work place I’ve resorted to wearing noise canceling earphones without music. These earphones double as a metaphoric door – it indicates to those around me that I’m hard at work and not to be disturbed. Noise canceling earphones let me create my own personal audio walls, but eventually I become the weird guy with the earphones that aren’t plugged into anything guy.

As a lowly developers it’s hard to make the case to management for a quieter work environment (let alone an office with a door), but we can keep our eyes out for companies that share these values, start our own company, or take opportunities that let us work from home. In the meantime thank goodness for ear plugs (err.. I mean earphones).

Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: Creativity, Musings, Personal, Software Tags:
  1. September 6th, 2008 at 19:48 | #1

    As somebody that works in an open space office, I can heartily agree with this. I tried the music option, but found it was very difficult to focus. I tried noise cancelling headphones, but found them a bit uncomfortable (almost like a pressure on my eardrum), and also found that sudden sounds got through. I recently got a pair of Shure SE210‘s, and have found them to be incredible. They reduce ambient noise, and also block out the sudden louder sounds that tend to get through noise cancelling headphones.

  2. September 8th, 2008 at 19:49 | #2

    For the 8 months I spent at my co-op term, I definitely realized this. The first 4 months was doing brainless web editing, and even though I worked in a relatively quiet area of the cubicle farm, I still listened to music most of my 8-hour day. It didn’t really have much of an affect until I moved into the web application developer position, where I was moved right beside HR, and there were people around me constantly talking. I tried drowning out the sound with music, but I noticed a lag in programming effectiveness/creativity (if there’s such a thing in the gov’t). I resorted to your technique, headphones in, music off. It seemed to work pretty well.
    Now I’m back to (relatively) mindless work and back to my music :-P

  3. September 14th, 2008 at 19:50 | #3

    I had exactly the same problems. I bought a set of Bose Quiet Comforts and they did a great job at drowning out the ambient office noise. This helped me get around the more complex development problems I encountered. As close to “closing the door” as I could get in my offices swanky “open space” environment :) Loved the post!

  4. Roberto Stillie
    September 15th, 2008 at 19:52 | #4

    Interesting post. It went against my assumptions after reading the book “Superlearning 2000″ regarding assimilation of data whilst listening to baroque music at 60 bpm. But After reading "Drawing on the right side of the BraIN" by Betty Edwards a renowned psychologist, I can see how music could overload the right side of the brain particularly blocking the corpus callosum from interhemispheric signal transmission thus stifling creativity regarding a logical, lexical and computational subjects.

    I believe that one should not take that study by Cornell and interpret that light ambient music or even the sounds of nature wouldn’t help creativity. Anything that causes one to daydream activates the right side of the brain. Some people have a severe right brain defecit and could use some creativity… Steven Harper – Prime example.

    Love the bit about the headphones not plugged in cublicle guy, classic Adam, you should hang a postit note on the jack inscribed “Remember to plug in”.

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