"During the 1960s, researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests on the effects of working with music. They polled a group of computer science students and divided the students into two groups, those who liked to have music in the background while they worked (studied) and those who did not.
Then 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 Fortran programming problem to work out from specification. To no one's surprise, participants in the two rooms performed about the same in speed and accuracy of programming. As any kid who does his arithmetic homework with the music on knows, the part of the brain
required for arithmetic and related logic is unbothered by
music—there's another brain center that listens to the music.
The Cornell experiment, however, contained a hidden wildcard. The specification required that an output data stream be formed through a series of manipulations on numbers in the input data stream. For example, participants had to shift each number two digits to the left and then divide by one hundred and so on, perhaps
completing a dozen operations in total. Although the specification never said it, the net effect of all the operations was that each output number was necessarily equal to its input number. Some people realized this and others did not. Of those who figured it out, the
overwhelming majority came from the quiet room.
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 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. The creative leap involves right-brain function. If the right brain, is busy listening to 1001
Strings on Muzak, the opportunity for a creative leap is lost.
The creativity penalty exacted by the environment is insidious. Since creativity is a sometime thing anyway, we often don't notice when there is less of it. People don't have a quota for creative thoughts. The effect of reduced creativity is cumulative over a long period. The organization is less effective, people grind out the work
without a spark of excitement, and the best people leave."-Peopleware[http://www.amazon.com/Peopleware-Productive-Projects-Teams-S...]
Peopleware was a beneficial book, but these stories need corroboration. I talked to one of the authors at a conference once, told him how much I loved one of their stories (that the Dutch East India Company, once the greatest corporation in the world, still exists with a mere 50 employees who do nothing but fill out paperwork) and asked him where they'd found it. "Did we say that?" he asked. Yes, absolutely, I said. "Oh," he replied. "Usually we only make stuff up for our talks, not our books."
Thanks for mentioning that. I scroll to the bottom of the book and got this for reference:
"The Cornell experiment was never documented and has thus taken on the status of hearsay evidence except for those of us who were there. For a concurring view of the effect of music on concentration, see Jaynes, 1976, pp. 367-68."
I agree that silence is probably better than any sort of music for programming. Unfortunately, that's not the choice programmers often have to deal with. Usually, its a choice between music and the usual office distractions (other people's conversations, the noise of people moving around, etc.) In those cases any sort of music to block out background noise is a godsend. Having headphones on also signals to visitors that one is busy and that interruptions should be only for important things.
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 the brain's holistic right side that digests music.
Makes me wonder if one of the subconscious motives for encouraging people to listen to music in cubicleville is to subtly keep them cowed and contented with doing the repetitive tasks they are assigned without thinking too much about how the process might be improved, without asking too many questions, and so on.