Listening to music while working. Yea or Nay?

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Image Courtesy: Jayden Buckley, PlayTheTunes

The effects of music on the brain have long been of interest to neuroscientists and we all know how music influences our mood.

Listening to music we love makes our brain release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that decreases stress levels and makes us feel good. Can music, however, make us smarter or work harder? How is it influencing our work productivity?

We are given several answers by an increasing number of studies about how music affects productivity, although some of the advantages can be subjective. Here’s what science tells you:

1. Music’s impact on physical performance

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Most of us find it easier to exercise while listening to music. Listening to music increases physical performance in both males and females, according to a report by sports psychologists.

Our perception of exertion is also decreased when listening to music while working out, which allows us to keep up the speed and exercise for longer than we usually would. Time to update your workout routine? You will be motivated to work out harder when listening to fast-paced music!

2. Music can improve cognitive performance

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Listening to music may not make us smarter but it increases performance on cognitive tasks. Listening to upbeat music increases processing speed in older adults, while memory appears to benefit both from upbeat and downbeat music.

Cognitive performance benefits, however, can differ depending on how much we like or dislike music. Researchers found that individuals who listened to their preferred music performed much better than those who listened to non-preferred music.

3. While at work music can improve productivity

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Several studies have been carried out on how listening to music influences the efficiency of work. One of them, conducted with 50+ developers from four Canadian tech companies over a period of five weeks, reveals that people who listened to music had better ideas and completed their tasks faster.

Researchers investigating how background music impacts performance on repeated tasks have found that productivity has been increased. The research concentrated on factory productivity, but the results are widely applicable. Working on tasks that are repetitive and boring? Listen to upbeat music to remain alert and motivated.

Music can enhance our mood, increase cognitive and physical performance, and keep us motivated for longer, but it all depends on the type of music you are listening to.

So, what kind of music is best?

To some extent, personal listening habits and musical training (or the lack of) dictate what you listen to while working, but studies show that certain types of music work better for particular tasks. Loud music, for instance, can be distracting and have negative effects on understanding, but during your daily workouts, it could also improve performance.

Songs with simple musical structure

Researchers explain that “it is not necessarily instrumental versus vocal music that influences whether music is distracting or not, but rather how the music is constructed.” Prior musical training also influences how our brains react to varying musical structures and rhythms.

Familiar music is great for focusing on tasks

Neuroscientists have found that listening to unfamiliar music makes us more likely to lose concentration as we try to take in the new sounds. Plus, when we listen to music we’ve heard before, regions of our brain which improve concentration are more involved.

Songs without lyrics are less distracting

Lyrics can be more distracting than you think. Listening to old favorites as you work can improve focus, but it can also take you back in time, triggering thoughts and memories that distract you from the task at hand. Even more so if you remember the lyrics and start singing along. It might not happen with every song, but you’ll want to avoid music that evokes nostalgia.

Classical music works pretty well

Studies show that listening to classical music can improve focus when working. Even when we are not paying attention to the music, classical compositions are soothing. In addition, they are really good at drowning out a busy office’s background hum.

Music makes us happy and helps us do better work, but sometimes silence works best too. In the end, it’s a personal preference and if you don’t usually listen to music when you work, knowing what works for most people can help you get started. If you already do, just try something new.