How Music Affects Your Productivity

Music has increasingly become a part of the workplace. With so much of our time being spent at work, and so much of our work being done at computers, music has become  a way to improve tedium while staring at screens for hours.

But how does music affect productivity? Let’s look at the research.

Music’s effectiveness is dependent on how “immersive” a task is, referring to the creative demand of the work. When a task is clearly defined and repetitive in nature, research from Applied Ergonomics suggests that music is consistently helpful.

"A series of experiments have investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry."

Assembly line workers showed signs of increased happiness and efficiency while listening to music, for example.

More modern studies  would argue that it isn’t the music itself, but rather the improved mood your favorite music brings enhances productivity.

Music with a dissonant tone was found to have no impact to productivity, while music in the major mode, or key, had better results:

“Subjects hearing BGM (background music) achieved greater productivity when BGM was in the major mode.”

While the open-office debate is still in the air, one point has become clear: a noisy workplace can halt productivity in its tracks.

A pair of headphones may not be as distracting as some companies think says Dr. Lesiuk.

"Dr. Lesiuk’s research focuses on how music affects workplace performance. In one study involving information technology specialists, she found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood."

Ambient noise is best for creativity.

For those who do appreciate listening to music during imaginative sessions, an atmospheric presence seems to work best.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research has shown that a moderate noise level can get creative juices flowing, but the line is easily crossed; loud noises made it incredibly difficult to concentrate.

A 2015 study from the Acoustical Society of America found that when it came to sound-masking with ambient noise, “natural” sounds, such as waves at a beach, also improved subjects’ ability to concentrate.

Lyrics are distracting.

For low-immersion or physical tasks, music with lyrics can offer huge benefits. But for intensive work, lyrics are especially destructive for focus.

Research from Applied Acoustics shows that “intelligible” chatter — talking that can be clearly heard and understood — is what makes for a distracting environment. Shifting focus to figure out what someone else is saying is the reason why speech is often considered the most troublesome element of a noisy office.

Lyrics might not have the same effect on creative tasks that don’t directly deal with “verbal architecture.” A 2005 study lead by Dr. Lesiuk that looked at software developers suggested that music with lyrics helped their output while working.

Music for immersive tasks?

Although “music that you like” should be given preference, most people have a fairly wide range of tastes, so using a certain type of music just for work isn’t out of the question.

Below we’ll cover a few proven styles, why they work, and where you can find more examples.

Classical music

Why it works

A 2009 study from the American Roentgen Ray Society concluded that Baroque-period tunes have a measurable impact on productivity. Additionally, there are no lyrics to distract listeners.

However, not all classical music is created equal — the dramatic twists and turns of Toccata & Fugue in D minor might not be as appropriate as the more delicate sounds of Für Elise.

Where to Listen

Examples

Electronic music

Why it works

Electronic music is repetitive in a good way. Unlike the ups and downs of a symphonic piece, there are quite a few producers who aim to create “soundscapes”that showcase a few select melodies that build on each other.

The song’s focus can help your focus, as the repeating tones won’t be disruptive.

Where to listen

Examples


Video-game music

Why it works

Game composers know that the ideal music for many situations is music that enhances the experience while not distracting the player.

Where to listen

Examples

“Everything else”

Why it works

If it isn’t distracting or jarring, it is fair game for your productivity playlist. Jazz, hip-hop, indie rock, blues, and everything else can work. Keep in mind that “ambient” is the word of the day for engrossing work.

Where to listen

Examples

No music (ambient noise)

But for many people, total silence is off-putting. There are two useful tools you can use to fix this:

  • SimplyNoise — Playing a low pitch white noise in the background can be a lifesaver if something in your environment is being uncontrollably loud (such as construction work).

  • RainyMood — Work like it’s drizzling outside even when it’s 90° F and the sun is shining. This plays a loop of a mild storm; turn on a fireplace videoand you can get seriously cozy.