If you’re reading this sat at your desk, it’s likely that you’re rocking a pair of headphones – but is the music you’re listening to making you better at your job, or worse?
Your boss would probably go for the latter, but studies have shown that music can enhance performance. The trick is to make sure you’re listening to the right type of music for the task you’re doing.
Research suggests that ambient, familiar music is the best for creative tasks, while too much noise has the opposite effect. Avoid music with especially low-lows or high-highs.
A study by Music Works found that music without lyrics, such as dance music, aids writing and proofing. Studies have also found that classical music and game soundtracks are effective.
Research suggests that classical music is the most effective genre for improving the accuracy of everyday mathematical problems.
Up-tempo, pleasing music can give you a motivational jumpstart, before starting creative or immersive tasks. Putting music on shuffle will also give you a feel-good, dopamine rush.
The most relaxing songs are at least eight minutes long, as it takes around five minutes for your heart rate to match the beat. If possible, they should also have no repeating melody.
Music is increasingly becoming a part of our everyday working lives. In a poll by CSS-Tricks, 45% of the 20,000 respondents said that they ‘always’ listen to music while they work. In comparison, only 6% of respondents said they ‘never’ listen to music. This means that an overwhelming 92% of people listen to music at work, at least some of the time.
Based on this figure, the question of whether listening to music is helping or hindering our performance becomes an important one. So, what does the research say?
According to Fast Company, we all spend so much time at our computers that music has become our way to “optimise the boring”.
However, this is the wrong way to look at the relationship between music and our working lives. Instead of seeing music as a welcome distraction from what you’re doing, you need to see the two as complementary to each other.
Numerous studies have shown that certain types of music can have a positive impact on particular tasks – and the main split is between immersive tasks requiring focus and repetitive tasks that require little cognitive processing.
When it comes to tasks that require intense concentration, such as creative or writing tasks, the research overwhelmingly suggests that you should listen to ambient, moderate noise-level music, with lack of lyrics being essential for writing tasks.
Familiarity is also important, as new music is surprising and, since you don’t know what to expect, you tend to listen more closely. However, with familiar music, you know what’s coming, so the music fades into the background and doesn’t become your primary focus.
Genres that work particularly well are classical music, instrumental music, dance music and “ambient electronica”. Lyric-less game and movie soundtracks are also noted as being very effective. As background audio, they are designed to do precisely that – sit in the background and not distract you from the action on screen.
Foreign language music can also work, as your brain won’t be distracted by trying to understand the lyrics.
In 1993, researchers coined the term the “Mozart Effect”, based on a study, which found that listening to Mozart’s "Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major" made listeners better able to solve visual problems.
Since then, studies have found that it’s not just Mozart that can have this effect – it’s any music you like. When similar tests were carried out using a range of music tracks, people performed better after hearing their preferred genre.
In 2013, Spotify commissioned research into the effect of music on studying. The lead researcher, Dr Emma Gray, a specialist in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, found that listening to the right music was important, which in this case was upbeat music with 50-80 beats per minute.
If the task requires low immersion (little variability or creative demand), you’ll need to put on a completely different playlist. A landmark 1972 study found that factory workers performed better when they listened to upbeat, happy music – a world apart from the soothing ambient music recommended for immersive tasks.
When it comes to repetitive tasks, many modern studies argue that it’s not the music itself that makes the difference, but the improved mood your favourite music produces.
For example, in a study by Dr. Teresa Lesiuk on how music affects workplace performance, it was found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t.
Interestingly, Dr. Lesiuk attributed this result to the positive effect of music on mood. She also found that personal choice is very important, with it necessary for individuals to be able to select music they like.
So, when you’re facing the mundane, make sure you put on your favourite music!
There might be some debate about the benefits of music for productivity, but there is no debate about the effect of noisy offices – overwhelmingly, open plan environments have been found to be damaging to our attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction.
So, it stands to reason that those headphones might not be as distracting as your boss thinks. And, when you take into account the huge amount of research that suggests that music in the workplace is beneficial, you might start to wonder if you should ever take them off.
There’s no doubt about it, music can have major benefits for workplace productivity. What is important, however, is to make sure you’re listening to the right type of music for the task at hand; with the level of immersion (focus) the task requires being the critical factor.