Similarly for me, I can understand spoken english almost perfectly easily but I'm having a hard time understanding even a couple words from an english song even if I try hard. (native language: french)
This must be true. However, once I've heard a song 20-30 times, it no longer causes distractions. Then again, when I work on a problem that takes 100% of my thinking power and concentration, I have to press pause, shut the door, and close my eyes.
Agreed. However, it's surprising because normally I don't even pay attention to lyrics when I'm listening to music. I couldn't tell you the lyrics of some of my favorite songs.
I tend to listen to some of the electronic / trace channels in iTunes radio: ETN.fm, SENSE.FM, XTC Radio, AH.FM, DI.fm, Philosomatika ... it really doesn't matter what the actual music is as long as I like it and it's not distracting.
For some reason lyrics don't bother me that much. It's probably part of the same mechanism that makes it impossible for me to remember lyrics, whether they're in my native language or English. To my ears the human voice is just another instrument, I guess.
Alex Brandon's Deus Ex OST. Kahvi Collective (all free). Schiller. 120 Days. Yoko Kanno's Ghost in the Shell OSTs. Other minimal or bassy electronic music (James Holden). But when I have to fix some difficult logic, I just put the music away.
I listen to a song on repeat for a day or two before moving on to a new song. It seems to distract part of my brain so the other part can code. And oddly after 2 days of listening to a song I only know the lyrics to the chorus. Its very strange but works great for me.
I'm weird, I have a tendency to sing along to the song I'm listening to while I'm working. It gets me through the non-thinking parts of my day.
I listen to a lot of different types of music. In order of popularity, probably reggae, folk rock, bluegrass, punk and then various other miscellaneous odds and ends. I tend to prefer songs with lyrics that are either clever or witty, or both. A particular favourite of mine at the moment is "The Battle" by Lady Sovereign et al. Lyrics like "Eating MCs like Ready Brek" and "I kill you little kids like morning after pill" never fail to make me smile.
Also, allow me to apologise in advance for the trauma caused by placing the image of a middle class white British guy singing reggae in your mind.
If I want to get focused quickly, I listen to some particularly horrible electronica (Winnipeg Is A Frozen Shithole by Venetian Snares is a good example). If it's three in the morning, I listen to some minimal electronica (Vladislav Delay, B. Fleischmann both good).
Otherwise, it's whatever I'm enjoying at the moment (recently: brutal hardcore like Circle Takes The Square, weird indie like Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown).
Finally, long albums are good because of the longer gaps between ends of songs and ends of records.
Lately it's been Crass into Cro-Mags (age of quarrel), dag nasty and damage control. The power of the alphabet. But when I am fleshing out entirely new stuff I need to listen to something that just blows my mind away so I don't even try to drum along to it etc. For me buddy rich stuff from the 70s does the trick. INSANELY complex/fast and super polished in a way that most jazz isn't which is normally a turn off but some how it works with his stuff.
I like stuff with driving beats that keep me focused on what's in front of me.
Talking Heads is really great hacking music. "Born Under Punches" is a really good example of a song that you can hack to.
I listen to an insane variety of music while hacking. Some highlights of the past month or so: Bob Dylan, Ruby Suns, Evangelicals, Paul Simon, Anton Webern, The Dodos, Xiu Xiu, The Velvet Teen. A pretty good variety of classic rock, indie rock, experimental and classical.
Complex music doesn't distract me, although I also avoid anything with lyrics. I listen to a decent blend of orchestral, chamber, and solo music. Bach is my favorite composer, but I like all polyphonic Baroque for when I need to concentrate.
If I'm in real trouble and really need to focus, I break out Philip Glass. His early stuff, like Music in Twelve Parts, is mesmerizing, really helps concentrate.