On headphones and headspace

I’ve been a fan of Sennheiser headphones for a long time. My HD25s have followed me around the world, they have wonderful sound isolation and a great flat frequency response that I love, and I’m a big fan of supra-aural headphones (not for everyone, I know). I’ve just bought a pair of smaller, lighter, Sennheiser PXC-250 II for travel and work. They are lightweight, have great sound, and the noise cancelling works quite well – the sound quality isn’t perfect (with noise cancelling headphones it never is), but it’s a lot better than iPhone earbuds and they are more convenient to carry than my HD25s.

I’ve always, almost without exception, listened to music while working. For the majority of this period, “work” consisted of programming – working with other peoples designs, making them interactive, making them move, solving minor technical or technological or design or architectural (in the software sense) problems. Plus the other minutiae that goes along with any freelance or programming job – emails, code maintenance, communication, business management issues. This was “work”.

And my work could always be done while listening to something. In more recent years as my programming skills improved and my programming work became more straightforward (I’d developed patterns to solve the same problems over and over – most websites are pretty much the same after all), I began listening to podcasts – my brain was at a point where my work was done in some subconscious part, separate from words and language. I could listen to people talking and comprehend that information at the same time as “working”. Very occasionally I would run in to a problem where I had to turn off my audio for a minute or two to get through something, but that was it. I liked this about working – in later years as a bored programmer it was something to look forward to: work was my music and information time.

I’m no longer a programmer in the same sense anymore. Although programming will be part of my work for the next few years, my work is not primarily programming – my work is now “research”. And as a PhD candidate, that means reading. Reading reading reading reading. Reading and paying attention. Reading and thinking and writing about and around what I’ve read.

Problem is, I can’t read and comprehend an academic paper, or journal article, or thesis, or book – and listen to music at the same time. I can’t think through a complex conceptual problem and listen to music at the same time. I can sometimes listen to music and write, depending on what I’m writing about, and as long as the music is repetitive or very familiar, or both. I can’t do any of these things and listen to podcasts.

I remember hearing on a Radiolab episode that included an experiment where subject’s language centres were effectively “shut down” by being forced to repeat strings of random words piped to them via headphones, while they tried to complete basic tasks. Without access to language, people were unable to make the most basic conceptual links: unable to connect “direction” and “colour” in ideas such as “left of the blue wall”. This is how it feels when I listen to music and read at the same time. I can read all the words and sentences, but the ideas just don’t connect.

Now, this doesn’t really surprise me – somehow it makes sense that I can separate “programming” and “language” in my brain but not “language” and “music”. Programming always seemed a technical, craft-like, mechanical problem. Music is a steady flow of connected concepts and ideas.

My problem is really related to routine – for me, forever, I listen to music when I work. It’s part of who I am. Was. I mean was: right now, I’ve got some reading to do.