Volume 17, Number 19 -- May 12, 2008

As I See It: Soothing the Savage Programmer

Published: May 12, 2008

by Victor Rozek

Dr. Masaru Emoto has a gentle, curious face and a facile mind with which he probes the bumpy intersection of science and metaphysics. Using a dark-field microscope with photographic capabilities, he researches the effects of external factors on the molecular structure of water. Not just such obvious influences as pollution, but much more esoteric factors not commonly thought to possess substance-altering properties, such as thoughts, words, and music.

The notion that sound or thought could alter the molecular shape of water seems ludicrous, but Emoto's extraordinary photos suggest otherwise. Water labeled with positive words such as "love," "gratitude," and "appreciation," when frozen and photographed showed beautiful and symmetrical crystals. Water from the same source labeled with words such as "hate" or "kill" created deformed crystals that look much like cancerous cells.

Similar results were achieved with music. Emoto placed speakers on either side of a beaker of water and subjected it to various types of music. Distilled water exposed to Tibetan chants and Beethoven's Pastorale formed elegant, harmonious crystals. Heavy Metal and discordant rock produced ugly, misshapen forms. The results of Emoto's research can be seen in several books he has published, including The Hidden Messages in Water and The Secret Life of Water.

Emoto appears to have discovered that water is extraordinarily malleable, (if a liquid can be described as such), and that it shifts its physical form in response to non-physical stimuli. Which brings us to two interesting and perhaps related facts. We, ourselves, are 70 percent water, (as coincidentally is the planet), and many of us enjoy listening to music at work. The coffee and Cheetos that were once the primary elements in a programmer's survival kit, have been supplanted by iPods and MP3 players. Walk through any IT department and everybody under 40 is plugged in, wired up and coding to their own drummer. But what are they listening to, and what effect is it having on their system and their productivity?

The use of music in the workplace is not new. Supermarkets, department stores, boutiques, CD and stereo stores, restaurants, bars, all use music to their advantage. Whether the outcome is pleasant or annoying depends largely on volume and repetition. If the music stays in the background, it tends to be tolerable for employees and customers alike. When it invades the foreground it can become distracting. The benefits of toning down the volume, however, are lost with torturous repetition. It's hard not to feel sorry for department store employees who must become nearly homicidal after listening to six weeks of cheery Christmas carols during the Holiday Season; or waitresses in Italian restaurants where Dean Martin has been droning on in an endless loop since 1956.

Most of the business venues that use music, however, do not require intense concentration. As annoying as perpetually cheerful music can be, it probably doesn't prevent a sales clerk from scanning items in a check-out line. But coding is a different matter. It requires periods of intense concentration; accuracy is paramount, and speed is almost always an issue. Under these conditions, does music become a distraction?

Not if you benefit from the Mozart effect.

Annie Bond, posting on, recounts: "In 1993 researchers at the University of California at Irvine found that college students who listened to Mozart's Piano Sonata K 448 for ten minutes prior to taking a spatial IQ test scored eight points higher than those who did not." Apparently, ". . . listening to music might somehow enhance the brain's ability to perform abstract operations immediately thereafter." This phenomenon became known as the Mozart effect.

Which is great if you like Mozart, but how about Metallica?

Well, says Bond: "University of Illinois researchers found in a study of 256 office workers that listening to music of their own choice soothed frayed nerves, drowned out distracting office chatter, boosted mood, and significantly enhanced office performance. Also among the positive effects: greater satisfaction with the employer and reduced interest in switching jobs!" If nothing else, listening to something upbeat and up-tempo can help keep you awake after a heavy lasagna lunch.

Research has, in fact, shown that music can indeed affect emotional well-being, health, social interaction, communication, and cognitive skills. But soft "research" is notoriously sloppy and self-serving, and just because people report benefits does not mean they actually exist. The connection between music and job performance is highly subjective. For example, I often listen to the radio while I work, but I know it actually slows my productivity because it splits my concentration. I do it because I like it, and because I'm on my own time. But if I'm on deadline, or really need to concentrate, I turn the noise off.

Enjoying something does not automatically enhance performance. If that were so, marijuana smokers would actually be as profound and insightful as they think they are. Nor is music desirable in all contexts. If the security guard can't hear the window breaking because he's too busy jammin', we have a problem. Likewise, trying to talk to someone who is lost in their own little musical universe is frustrating if not futile. But even if we concede that music has many life-enhancing properties, there is the peripheral issue raised by Emoto's research.

What is the relationship, for example, between violent, discordant music and violent, discordant behavior? A programmer working on a violent video game is probably not listening to Brahms. The which-came-first, chicken or egg question can be endlessly debated, but at the very least we can presume that musical taste is a reflection of an internal state and that they are mutually reinforcing. If music both inspires and mirrors a state of being, it must by extension inform the creative output of the listener. Precisely how, however, is still a matter of conjecture.

Emoto is quick to admit that "fluids with other elements in them, like seawater, blood and urine, do not form crystals." It is therefore difficult to prove the connection between types of music and productivity using Emoto's photographic method. He has, however, diluted blood and urine to the point where crystals can be formed and claims there is a link, although he has yet to publish his findings. "Water," he insists, "reflects the consciousness of the human race."

If that is true, and music can temporarily impact the molecular structure of water within our system, then we are what we listen to, just as we are what we eat.

Music has been shown to affect brain wave activity, heart rate, and nervous system function. Dr. Ellen Weber, writing an article called Whistlin' While You Work for a site called Brain Based Business, delineates the possible impacts of different types of music on people. Which type enhances the coding process and would be most useful to programmers is empirically debatable. (If you are a programmer or IT manager and you listen to music at work, hit that Contact button at the top of this page and tell us what you listen to, when you do it, and why.) Each type of music leads to different effects on our bodies and minds, and you should check out Weber's list to guide you as you do your work. You might be listening to the wrong kind of music to enhance your ability to deal with the task at hand.

The thing to remember is that based on the exquisite sensitivity of the instrument which is the human body, it is probable that nothing we do, or read, or ingest, or listen to, is without consequence. "Music," John Loan said, "is the medicine of the mind." If so, self-medicate mindfully.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Brian Kelly, Shannon O'Donnell,
Mary Lou Roberts, Victor Rozek, Kevin Vandever, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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