Some measure their work in tomatoes. I measure mine in albums and songs.
When it comes time to get stuff done, I match my ambitions to my energy level. Big, uncertain things when I’m full of spark and optimism. Tiny, predictable things when I’m sapped and ready to check out. The coherence, duration, and novelty of what I’m listening to takes me in a different creative directions. I use Pandora, my own iTunes library, and Rdio to match my creative mood to a musical mood.
Sometimes, I don’t know where I’m going. I may not even know where I am. At best, I know how I feel. This is when Pandora shines. If I feel funky, I go with a Billy Preston or Meters mix. If I’m feeling peppy, I go with RJD2 or Steely Dan. If I’m feeling brooding, it’s DJ Shadow or Explosions in the Sky. Pandora finds my way musically, I find my way creatively. Teamwork.
I’m an album guy. I like to queue up a coherent piece of music and listen to it all the way through, in order. A good album rewards this. It starts with a bang, proceeds through a middle section where things might get slow, take on minor key, or both. Things clear up, maybe with a light and organized middle piece. The finale brings it all together and ends with something that sticks in my head.
Ideally, I’d create this way too. Start at the beginning. Find the crux of the problem space, explore some solutions. Work to some kind of apex where I’ve got all the problems solved and all my ducks in a row. Clean up the rough edges, tidy everything up, and ship it as the finale.
Duration is important. A short album (Treats by Sleigh Bells, 32 min.; Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, 31 min.) is great for tackling a compact but rewarding task in a small timeframe. A medium length album (The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, 60 min.; Game Theory by The Roots, 51 min.) is good when I’m starting to feel my groove. When I’m feeling more ambitious, a double album is in order (The Beatles White Album, 96 min., Mahler’s 5th Symphony, 72 min.).
My wildcard is Rdio. Rdio is a blessing for me as a music service. It is very much based on systemic album listening, as opposed to Pandora’s serendipitous song discovery. I turn to Rdio when I know I want to focus, but feel uncertain about where my creative travels will take me. Rdio’s full of music I think I might like, but I’m not yet sure if I really want to make it part of my collection. When I’m listening to Rdio, I’m tinkering with ideas, seeing if I want to own them now or stow them away for later.
Music is important to my craft, even though it’s not a touch point. I bought almost twice as much music in 2010 as I did in 2009. I started paying for both Rdio and Pandora. Text editors (I spent significant time in three of them last year), notebooks (I finished two and started a third), and various arcane tools are important to my work making code, organizing ideas, and shipping useful software. Getting my music right is perhaps just as crucial.