Stop and listen to the sounds around you for a few seconds—what do you hear? Total and complete silence? The excessive sound of a coworker’s chewing? (We’re so sorry.) Or maybe it’s the music coming out of your headphones. Regardless of your current sound situation, there are some noises that can help you be your most productive self. But they’re not exactly what you think. Read on to find out more about music for productivity, what the science says about how it works (or how it doesn’t), and some suggestions for your work playlist.
The Curious Case of Music and Productivity in the Workplace
Before we get going, a disclaimer: The science on using music for productivity is mixed. Some studies support it and others…not so much. We’ll take a look at both sides and then break down the best ways to listen to music according to the science that backs it up. But we want to be clear that it’s by no means a cut-and-dried situation. Onward.
3 Ways Music Makes You More Productive
First, the good news—there is evidence that listening to music for productivity works. For example, one of the foundational studies on productivity and music found that music makes people more efficient in their work, especially when doing repetitive tasks. Here are a few more ways that tuning in can keep you from zoning out.
1. Calms you down
Listening to music can improve your productivity by reducing your anxiety, which honestly, the majority of us could use. Studies have found that listening to music reduces anxiety and distress among people who have recently had surgery. Not fresh off the operating table? It can still help. Music’s anxiety-decreasing effect can help you stop worrying and get to work.
2. Boosts your mood
Music can also improve your mood more generally, which can make getting down to business much easier. (We don’t know about you, but we struggle to take on our to-do list when we’re cranky. Or down. Or hungry.) Research suggests that music doesn’t just put people in a better mood, but that the mood can actually get better the more you listen.
So what kind of music works for your mood? Surprise—uptempo, happy music, suggests research.
3. Ups your performance
Another good way to show that music can help make you more productive? How you perform without it. One study found that people did worse on tasks when they were asked to stop listening to music as they worked. The same study found that when people stopped listening to music, they spent more time on their work than they meant to, suggesting that music can make you work both better and more efficiently.
Not only are you more productive, but some research suggests that the work you do while listening to music is judged better by others than work done without music. Working more productively for better results? Sign us up.
…and 3 ways music can prevent productivity
Unfortunately, some of the research swings in the other direction. Here are three ways music can keep you from your best work.
1. Makes it harder to complete complex tasks
What you’re doing matters when it comes to music and productivity, suggests research. For example, several studies have found that while music may be okay for repetitive tasks, it negatively influences productivity and performance during complex tasks. Like writing. (Guess we’ll close Spotify now.)
Some research also suggests that while silence may be best for working, music without lyrics is generally better than music with lyrics, especially when working on tasks involving words. Specifically, they found that people who listen to music with lyrics may take more time processing the task. This may be because the words in the song can distract you from the words you’re supposed to focus on. Or they could get mixed up in your brain.
Other studies back up the negative effects of music on word-related tasks. For example, one study found that when people listened to music while writing, they wrote more slowly and paused more often. This study found that both music with lyrics and music without lyrics can hurt writing skills.
The takeaway? If you’re dealing with words, you’re probably better off without music. (We don’t love this either.)
2. Sad music brings your mood down
Just like happy music can make you more productive by giving you a positive boost, sad music can toss your mood in the other direction. And when you’re not feeling positive in general, it can be pretty hard to be productive at work.
Music choice matters
It all comes down to this: You can listen to music for productivity gains. But you have to find out what works for you. Maybe you can dig into your toughest tasks with Drake on repeat. Or maybe the sound of silence is the only playlist you need. Either way, your music choice matters. Not convinced? Research backs us up.
For example, one study found that focus and reading comprehension were better for participants who got to choose their music than for participants who had to listen to whatever the researchers chose. (And we can only imagine what that would be.) There wasn’t a difference in focus or comprehension between those who listened to the music they liked and those who read in silence.
Another study found no difference in reading comprehension between people who listened to music with lyrics while working and those who listened to music without lyrics. Bonus? It also tested participants’ reading comprehension while listening to different genres of music and found no difference.
Wondering if your music choice affects what type of task you’re doing? One study found that participants did well in both creativity and thinking about problems with one right answer as long as they were listening to the music they chose. All participants did worse on both types of thinking when they either had to listen to music they didn’t choose, had to listen to music when they prefer silence, or had to work in silence when they preferred music.
Translation: Experiment with music, silence, and different kinds of tasks and see what happens. You’ll know pretty quickly what your preferences are.
How to Use Music for Productivity
Now that you know that listening to music for productivity works under the right circumstances, it’s time look at the best way to get the benefits. Here are a few of our science-backed tips for using music to help you be as productive as possible.
1. Listen to happy music
We know that staying positive can make you more productive. And we know that listening to “happy” music can keep you positive. With these powers combined, you have a pretty good shot at staying upbeat and on task.
What is happy music exactly? There’s not one, solid definition, but we’re pretty sure you’ll know it when you hear it. Make a playlist with your most upbeat tracks and see how it works for you.
Try this playlist: Get Happy
2. Try music without lyrics
While some research has shown that there’s no difference in productivity when listening to music with lyrics versus without lyrics, other studies say that instruments alone are best. Try both to see what works for you but don’t worry if classical isn’t your thing. There are plenty of lyricless songs and even genres that can satisfy your ears while you work. Try ambient or even binuaraul beats.
Try this playlist: Deep Focus
3. Explore other sources of sound
If you think of music more as background noise than entertainment, you suddenly have a lot of other options. Go beyond traditional music—try white noise or nature sounds.
Try this playlist: White Noise
Or this one: Nature Sounds
4. Do what works for you
The main takeaway here is that people are more productive when they’re in an environment that feels comfortable to them. So if there’s music you like to work to, listen away, whether it’s word-heavy rap or lyricless jazz. And don’t give up on silence either. Sometimes, that’s the only noise you need.
5. Keep track
Of course, knowing what works for you might take some of your own research. You don’t necessarily need to give yourself reading-comprehension tests after listening to six different kinds of music, but there are some ways you can figure out what’s best.
For example, if you find yourself getting distracted by music while you’re working, maybe stay away from that artist or genre. You can even try doing similar tasks to different types of music (or silence) and see how you do.
To sum it all up
Listening to music for productivity can work. You just have to figure out what music or sound works for you. Once you find your best productivity playlist, don’t be afraid to turn up the volume—within reason, of course. And if silence is more your thing, you can still throw on your headphones in the office. We won’t tell.
Your turn: In your experience, what’s the best music for concentration and focus? Does listening to music for productivity work for you? Tell us in the comments and link to your favorite playlist.
Want more ways to be better at your job? Here are 59 work tips to help you perform at your best.
Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.