Soundtracks for coding

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I wish I was one of those people who could listen to an audiobook while they work, but I can’t. I don’t know if it’s something unique to programming, or some inability of my brain to handle auditory multi-tasking, but I can’t read/write code (or much else) while also listening to human speech. Am I alone? I’ll bet I’m not. In Manish Sinha’s recent article, “What it feels like to be in the zone as a programmer“, he identifies the same issue:

I don’t want to talk to anyone. If I do find myself in a conversation, I’m not able to function correctly because I can’t. That part of my brain is disabled. Words will try to come out but won’t. I’ll mostly listen and patiently wait until I can return to the code. To the other person, I probably appear like I’m somewhere else. It’s because I am.

That struck a chord with me. My wife can testify that when I’m coding I can barely form sentences. Talking stops me from coding, and vice-versa. I need to close off the world, seal myself in a cone of silence. When silence gets boring, I need wordless, melodic noise to fill the hole. This is why I have fallen in love with soundtracks. Movie and TV soundtracks are the ultimate coding music. I used to consider myself a movie buff, but I’ve long ago transitioned to simply being a movie soundtrack buff. I’ve listened to hundreds of soundtracks in the last decade, from Bernard Hermann to Daft Punk and everything in between, and these are the ones that I keep coming back to for coding.

The Knick – Cliff Martinez

Cliff Martinez – who gave us the score to Drive – produced an electronic soundtrack which doesn’t seem to fit a show about hospitals in the 19th century. I don’t care whether it does or not, it’s great music to code to.

Moon – Clint Mansell

Clint Mansell did an amazing job when tasked with creating a score for the cult classic Moon. It helps that this movie is one of my favourite sci-fi films. The soundtrack beautifully captures the isolation of living alone in outer space.

Jane Eyre – Dario Marianelli

I have a soft spot for piano music, and Dario Marianelli always delivers. Jane Eyre is no exception. The refrain is a little reminiscent of the theme to Downton Abbey, expanded out into something much richer.

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Airmech – Front Line Assembly

The score to the 2013 multiplayer robot combat game, Airmech, is Front Line Assembly‘s first attempt at a soundtrack (if you don’t count some of the music for Quake Arena). It’s notable in that it is completely instrumental, featuring none of the media sampling that they’re more well known for. There’s a definite dubstep influence, which wouldn’t normally be for me, but it’s not overbearing. Everything That Was Before is the highlight for me – a light, slow-building track that usually arrives just when I’m hitting my stride.

The Ghost Writer – Alexandre Desplat

I don’t know anything about the movie Ghost Writer, and much like The Knick, I don’t want to or need to. It could be a fine movie, but I don’t care. The soundtrack is a great showcase of Desplat’s talent. Ghost Writer has a beautiful staccato rhythm of typewriter keys which makes writing or coding to it feel like… destiny.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat

Most of Wes Anderson’s soundtracks are compilations of existing music, but for The Grand Budapest Hotel he went for something a little different, bringing the talented Mr Desplat on board to craft a full orchestral soundtrack which starts with a vocal / yodelling track from a Swiss folk group called Öse Schuppel, and builds from there.

Westworld – Season 1 – Ramin Djawadi

If you haven’t seen HBO’s Westworld, stop reading this and binge-watch the whole thing now. This blog post can wait. Done? Good. Ramin Djawadi is nothing short of a genius, and the way he turns songs from contemporary artists like Radiohead and The Rolling Stones into old west numbers is outstanding. Paint It Black in particular is a masterpiece. It captures the heart of old school westerns like The Searchers and True Grit while still remaining true to its roots. I also prefer his piano rendition of Black Hole Sun to the original – and I love the original.

Battlestar Galactica – Season 1 – Bear McCreary

Bear McCreary’s riffs off the mini-series soundtrack to create a modern, percussive theme, equally at home scoring human drama or space battles. There are some odd tracks on here. One in particular, Battlestar Muzactika, can easily pull you out of ‘the zone’ as the style is so jarringly different from the other tracks, but it’s quite short. Look up the translations for the Italian lyrics to the opera piece Battlestar Operatica for some series in-jokes.

Sadly, it’s not on Spotify, but you can find it on Youtube here:

Another Earth – Fall On Your Sword

The electronic soundtrack to Brit Marling’s sci-fi movie about an identical earth in our orbital plane. This is a great mix of experimental electronica, beautiful piano and a haunting cello refrain which repeats through a number of tracks. Fall on Your Sword also did the music for the TV show Magicians. 

Atonement – Dario Marianelli

Another Marianelli masterwork, and another soundtrack with typing noises. The track Elegy for Dunkirk is particularly special. Bonus points for ending with my favourite piece of classical music, Clair de Lune. Sometimes I just listen to Clair de Lune over and over as coding music. There’s an extended, looped version here on youtube which is an hour long.

The Lord of the Rings Suite – Howard Shore

It’s hard to separate a soundtrack from the movie it accompanies, especially when that movie is something as monumental and unforgettable as Lord of the Rings. My love of the movies influences my feelings about the music, but even without this there are pieces which Howard Shore has crafted which transcend the movie. Concerning Hobbits is just so evocative of a summer’s day in the country. The Breaking of the fellowship is a haunting ode to the rest of the soundtrack, but then breaks halfway into a beautiful soprano solo evocative of Welsh coal-choirs. Enya’s May it be is what Elvish music must sound like. And all these tracks are just from the first movie soundtrack. There are just as many gems on the 2nd and 3rd album.

Gladiator – Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer made his name with this groundbreaking soundtrack – a perfect mix of middle-eastern vocals, Spanish guitar and an explosive brass section. The style has been copied and imitated countless times over the years. One of the most memorable and identifiable scores of the last 20 years.

Bonus: The Planets – Gustav Holst

Perhaps the most influential composer on the big name soundtrack artists. In just one track – Mars, the God of War – you can hear the origins of The Imperial March from John Williams’ Star Wars score, and The Barbarian Horde from Zimmer’s Gladiator. I like to think of The Planets suite as a soundtrack some lost 1930s science fiction serial that never saw the light of day.

That’s my list. These compilations of music have helped me a lot when coding and writing. Hopefully there’s some inspiration here for someone else out there.