Listen while you work

I feel sorry for PhD students who prefer to work in silence. Most students (and postdocs) will be assigned a desk in a shared office. Lab-dwelling students cannot realistically expect a quiet working environment. Jenny describes the sounds of science:

However, at your desk it is reasonable to expect to be able to concentrate amid the conversations, comings and goings that are inevitable even with the most considerate of colleagues. Fortunately (for me) I have always preferred working with background noise. I never mastered doing my homework in front of the television, but I did used to work with half an ear on the UK top 40 counting down as I finished my weekend assignments on a Sunday afternoon.

Sharing a busy office, it is easier to focus on my work without distractions by plugging myself into my headphones. After Sylvia tweeted her preferred music grant-writing album

I thought about my own listening and whether, too, prefer particular music for specific tasks. If I am working in the evening, I sometimes turn to classic FM to calm my mind and help me focus,  but during the day I prefer the idiosyncrasies of Radio 4 to keep me entertained. Podcasts are useful too, I have followed Simon Mayo’s film review show for a number of years, and can be caught barely suppressing laughter if I am listening to the Friday Night Comedy Podcast.  If I am feeling low, I have been known to seek comfort in the local radio station from my hometown. A number of science podcasts are available – see here for a somewhat outdated list, and here for a list with an emphasis on technology.

Do you prefer to work in silence (and if so, how do you deal with distractions)? If you do prefer to listen while you work, what do you choose to listen to?

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8 Responses to Listen while you work

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I can’t listen to spoken word-podcasts while I’m doing anything that requires any kind of mental effort at all, but I listen to a lot of music podcasts while I work. I find for some reason that listening to music I’ve never heard before (in most cases), but picked by someone with similar tastes to mine, works better for me than listening to familiar music, so podcasts are ideal.

    (For tasks that require a lot of concentration, anyway. Friday afternoon grunt-work (filing emails, updating tracking spreadsheets etc). is often performed to the sounds of the Nirvana Unplugged album).

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    spoken-word podcasts, not spoken word-podcasts.

  3. Tom Phillips says:

    I would quite like to work in silence sometimes but, as you’ve said, it’s basically impossible in a shared office (mine is especially loud because we have a kitchen area which is used like a common room).

    I’m amazed you can work to Radio 4 and spoken word podcasts – my brain can’t do it. It grinds to a complete standstill. Otherwise it’s often electronic music, lots of techno and garage and I end up shuffling and dancing away in my chair. Really helps when I’m programming or doing data analysis. I think I might give Classic FM a go though.

    In the lab it’s 6Music. I prefer it as I don’t want to annoy anyone with something that I chose, plus it’s nice to hear new music.

  4. Erika Cule says:

    On spoken-word podcasts and Radio 4, it is true that if I am working I do not follow them intently. I would describe it as listening with half an ear. More important are the familiar voices acting as a sort of soothing white noise. If there is something I really want to concentrate on I have to listen to it at another time.

    Yup to dancing at your desk. For programming, try this song. On Classic FM, be sure to avoid this show, which I do find either distracting (what’s that movie?) or irritating, depending. Also, be aware that Classic FM has a short playlist, so even if (like me) you know little of classical music, being a regular listener means hearing the same tracks over and over again.

    Martin Hughes tweeted a link to this post by Andy Coverdale which lists music (both instrumental and with vocals) for all sorts of PhD-related eventualities.

    Any suggestions for music podcasts? Surely there are licensing issues. Radio 1 has an unsigned music podcast, but the selection is so eclectic that I found I did not like more than I liked of the music there.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      It’s hard to make suggestions without knowing what kinds of things you like, but I’ll give it a try! Most of mine tend towards the indie-rock end of the spectrum, with some exceptions. I’ve marked my faves with asterisks.

      I do listen to some of the BBC “Introducing” unsigned bands podcasts – *Tom Robinson’s is the best IMO, but I also listen to Huw Stevens and Scotland Introducing. I can’t get most other BBC music podcasts as they’re only available in the UK (like you said, it must be a licensing issue).

      CBC: *Radio 3 master feed, Canada Live

      *AMPed (a weekly compilation of the best songs played by several other podcasts – a good way to find other podcasts you like)

      Counting the Beat (from New Zealand)

      *Coverville (all cover songs. This one is often AWESOME).

      MPR’s Current Song of the Day

      The Dub Zone

      *The Hip-Hop Zone

      IndieFeed (various genre-specific podcasts)

      Insomnia Radio (lots of different shows from all over the world – they’re all good)

      KEXP Seattle: *Music That Matters, Live Performances, KEXP Song of the Day

      Nothing but the Blues

      NPR Live Concerts

      PC Podcast and PCP2, by Pete Cogle who also does the Dub Zone and the Hip Hop Zone

      *Pollyanna Cowgirl Records (it’s NOT country music, as I first assumed)

      *Radio360 – Music for Strange Moments

      Roadhouse (blues)

      Rubyfruit (mostly female artists)

      The Sound Culture

      *The Sounds in my Head

      *Shady Ladies (by Kat Arney and friends, who you may know?)

      Triple J (Australia): The Unearthed 5 and the New Music feed

      The Unblinking Ear

      That should keep you busy for a while! NB A good way to find music podcasts you’ll like is to search the iTunes store for bands you like, then scroll down to the “podcast episodes” entries to see if any podcasters are playing their songs.

  5. Martyn Rittman says:

    Unfortunately in my current lab, the default is silence unless you stick headphones in. That said, my taste in music doesn’t always go down well with lab-mates, so maybe it’s better that way! For work where I have to concentrate, I really like trance and dance music, especially Paris One Dance or SomaFM. For something a bit different, BBC radio3 has some great programs, of which my favourites are ‘words and music’ – does exactly what it says on the tin, and ‘late junction’ for which there is really no word to describe the mix of music.

    I can’t do spoken word while doing proper work, but recently I’ve adopted ‘A history of the world in 100 object’ (available from the BBC website) for ironing and ‘Philosophy bites’ ( for the washing up.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    Interesting comments on lab sounds. In the US, one of the big ideas in the last decade was to create “open labs” where there are no physical boundaries between one lab and its neighboring lab. Officially the idea is supposed to support cross-fertilization of ideas and collaborations between different labs, I secretly suspect that administrators dreamed this up to be able to take and give lab space to PIs easily with the ebb and flow of grant money.

    In any case, for the first time, a PI can no longer impose radio or music rules because he or she doesn’t have control of neighboring labs. Since I do not work in the lab and my office is way down the hall, my position has always been to let the people in the lab sort out this policy amongst themselves, with the provision that if music or radio bothers anyone or prevents them from being able to concentrate, that takes precedence over everything else.

    Years ago we did have a dispute with a neighboring PI, who asserted his “right” to play music as loud as he wanted within his own physical space (despite the lack of any formal barrier between our labs). When polite requests were not honored, I was forced to go to higher authorities, who backed my lab’s request. Fortunately, this individual moved on to another institute and made a good number of people happy…

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