I fought it. For years. I laughed at “metal heads” (still do, but that’s another story). I couldn’t stand the bone-crunching guitar sounds and the vomit inducing vocals.
But a couple of years ago, something happened. Something snapped inside me, and I was converted, much like brother Saul was on his way to Damascus.
And, much like brother Saul, I will not dwell too long on that moment of epiphany, but will make haste to deliver the good news: metal is great for work! (By work, I can only testify for my own context of a software engineer.) Open plan offices are still *inexplicably* a thing, and there’s always a couple fools hanging around unbearably within earshot, holding forth about whatever inane things they did over the weekend. Bye-bye deep work. But, there’s hope yet. You can plug in your earbuds, and hit play on your favourite music player. This way, you can control the sounds you want to hear, and also drown out those that you don’t want to hear.
But what music do you choose? This is obviously a reflection of your personality, your mood, your inclinations, etc. How many of us turn occasionally to metal? Not many, in my casual observation. Metal is still relatively only a counter culture, even now living in the shadows (perhaps by choice). If you are unaware of this veritable sonic universe, do read on. Who knows, you might find a new favourite thing.
Metal was (arguably) born in the British industrial Midlands, and therefore the dark and bleak aesthetics to the whole range of subgenres. Some great metal albums do one thing rather excellently: they convey a subliminal message, as a cassette of emotions to the listener. The main reason for metal to exist is emotions. And emotions are such a vital part of us: we constantly experience emotions, even when we are deep into our work.
There are positive(peace, joy, gratitude, accomplishment) and negative(anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration) emotions, sometimes all playing out in our minds at the same time. My (probably naive) assessment is that the brain needs the emotions to be processed. By introducing an auditory agent, you’re allowing a part of your brain to indulge these emotions, and to process them in the background.
Metal music is therefore a powerful tool to help shape how you are feeling, and how you want to perceive your environment.
If you want answers from science, then sadly, there isn’t a clear consensus yet.
…In favour of,
In my opinion, the thing that defeats any research, is the sheer variety of the kinds of music that can be labelled as Metal. Take a look-see at one of the nicer representations I found online.
And that map is just one opinion. I’m sure metal purists will be able to punch at least 70 holes for missing genres in that picture, but that’s besides the point.
The point is, all this is conjecture pulled straight out of my (not the naughty word you thought) own experiences, and those of a few friends. It might work for you, it might not. That’s the thing. Heavy, emotionally charged music is compelling: there is no escaping the forming of a strong opinion. My hope is that you don’t write it off completely just because so much of it seems unpleasant at first glance.
Two things. Firstly, my music preferences change on an almost daily basis, but I do frequently turn to Metal for it’s ability to facilitate isolation that is needed for deep work. The following paragraphs sort of illustrate the approach I follow. There are so many great artists and albums I’ve intentionally left out, because this is not a “list of my favourite metal bands”.
And second: there are times when it is better to pull out the earbuds, and shut off the music app. Yeah, obviously, there are social norms, and workplace etiquette, and even simple common sense. I mean, do you want to see the look on your colleague’s face when you’re refactoring some code together and you proceed to plug in to your jams? Guess not. So with that disclaimer, I’m gonna assume that you’re a responsible adult, and carry on with what I’m trying to say.
Again, these are mere suggestions, highly subjective, coming from my experiences, but you can probably work out your own system. Or you have your own system already, in which case I’m dying to hear of it. So here’s the list. Plug in your earbuds and join the trip!
For Requirement Analysis: Black/Post Metal
For me, these are the most evocative and aesthetically pleasing genres. The melancholic but pleasing backdrop, almost a fabric of guitars, with space-y fast drums help to create an aura that is conducive for sorting. At this stage, you’re mainly sorting the requirements into different baskets, or stories and even epics. You are forming ideas in your mind, the flavours of future challenges are already making your creative juices flow. You need to take your time with this.
To accompany you in these nascent times, here are two examples, first the album Elil by Fall of Efrafa. It is first of a trilogy of albums based on the book Watership Down. Yes, brutal metal music about bunnies. Total trip.
Next, a very different sound. Unmistakable inspiration from Lord of the Rings, the band Falls of Rauros with their album The Light That Dwells in Rotten Wood. If you’re a newcomer to metal music, it might seem strange to relate tenderness with this genre, but just look at the titles and tell me it doesn’t evoke feelings of wonder: “Earth’s Old Timid Grace”, “The Cormorants Shiver on their Rocks”.
For Design: Progressive Metal
During the design phase, you’re really stretching those brain muscles. The mental gymnastics require you to think through things thoroughly, and find the best possible paths to best possible outcomes. Whether you’re designing solutions or tests, you want to be thorough, you want to uncover every hidden pocket which could be hiding great big future heartaches, and also find nuggets of innovation that will make your work spectacular.
Progressive Metal is a smart genre, with a (if I may say so) math-y feel to it. It is surprising, intelligent, and challenging. The Design phase is usually without music for me, but sometimes, some prog metal helps. Here’s a stellar example, coming from Berklee College of Music, Dream Theater with their album Train of Thought.
Or perhaps, you might take a shine to Meshuggah.
For Coding: Drone Metal
Right, so you’re now down to the brass tacks. Time to test how well your muscle memory serves you, as you seek to put down the design into cold, hard code. Perhaps you need something rhythmic and comforting. Drone Metal is all that and more. I find that slow, rhythmic, heavy music helps me to bring that laser focus that is required for deep work like coding.
For example, Earth with their album Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I.
It goes on and on, and that’s the point. And this is just part 1 of the two part album.
For Testing: The Classics
This is just a placeholder for everything iconic (read: mostly Black Sabbath, and other lesser immortals). You’re testing your code, to see whether you’re seeing the desired outcomes, and making sure there are no surprises. Again, you want to be thorough, and you want to document every finding and make it traceable for later. But you want it to be engaging and fun.
Let Ozzy’s Black Sabbath accompany you on that journey.
For Debugging: Stoner Doom
One of my favourite things to do is to set a bunch of breakpoints and disappear for hours. Whether it is my own code or someone else’s handiwork, it is a beautiful experience, to walk hand-in-hand with the control, navigating the stack and discovering hidden treasures at every corner.
Needless to say, this is brain-heavy work, and it might help to shut the world out. Again, just like in the case of ‘Coding’ above, you’d probably appreciate something heavy, slow and rhythmic.
Stoner Doom is a sub-genre of the very, very slow and ponderous Doom Metal, characterised by (only comparatively) up-tempo and bass heavy music.
Sample this: An album by Bongripper.
Or perhaps this album by Electric Wizard.
A Word From Our Activist Friends
The Metal subculture has been derided by parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other old coots for supposedly causing young people to become violent or promiscuous or in general unpleasant malcontents. While it’s nowadays generally acceptable to laugh at such opinions, there are other more serious issues that plague Planet Metal. Given that metal music is such a powerful direct line to the aorta, there are many bands that propagate radically racist, misogynist, and hateful views through their lyrics, imagery, or fan base. Just know that these inevitable unpleasantnesses will crop up in your journey of the genres, should you decide to embark on one, and know that the music is the tool and you’re the builder, not the other way around.
This is probably a new uncharted world, and you’re probably confused with the variety presented above. Next time you’re sitting down to work, and your music player goes to the same old default play lists, give pause and try some of these. There’s a 97.3% (arbitrary number, just making a point) chance you’ll hate it, and think I’m a nut. But if you’re from among the 2.7% that actually likes something from here, I’d be happy to know. I’ll light a candle at St.Paul’s cathedral for you. ;)