Does music really boost your productivity at work or is it actually a distraction?

Managers are often divided about whether employees should be allowed to listen to music as they work. While some offices allow (and some even promote) using music to focus on one’s tasks; others frown upon the activity as a time-waster. Is there a right answer?

I have three playlists that I use most often – instrumental music for when I’m writing; upbeat songs with energizing lyrics for working out; and old classics to play while doing housework. If you are anything like me, you probably have some favorite tracks that help you get through mental blocks and daily routines; or just to make your day more interesting.

But are we helping ourselves or hurting our productivity when we decide to use music to ‘bolster’ our work performance? This has been a long debated question. according to the research, it all seems to depend on the kind of work we do, the type of music we play, and even a little bit on the type of person we are!

Music can help productivity….. sometimes

Back in 1972, researchers Fox and Embrey conducted a series of experiments to see the effect of music, silence, and ambient noise on work performance. They found that when the task is not too complex (or is something that the person does all the time), playing upbeat music can help in increasing efficiency and productivity. Not only that, it also helps improve the overall mood of employees.

Their findings suggests that jobs that can get monotonous would benefit from playing lively music every once in a while. People engaged in boring work – understandably – seem to work better when some music is played as compared  with working in silence. And they work even better if this music is lively and fun.

A matter of choice

This impact of lively music is even more pronounced if the workers get to choose the music; or if the music is used to mask harsh ambient noise. A recent study found that when people listened to music that they enjoyed (but did not necessarily love), they were able to work the most efficiently.

On the other hand, they did rather poorly when listening to music that they had strong feelings for – whether it was music that they definitely disliked; or even some that they intensely liked. Such music seems to distract people from their work by triggering an emotional response (of love or of hate).

A noisy office is a distracting place that can drastically reduce efficiency. At such times, listening to music – or to white noise tapes – can help tune out the commotion and increase focus on work. Complex tasks do not necessarily preclude the use of ambient music in the workplace. As Teresa Lesiuk found in her 2005 article, playing music also helps software developers feel happier about their work, and also to work faster and more efficiently.

How does the music help?

Sounds that we find pleasant or enjoyable help develop our mental and physical health. For example, the sound of the ocean or of birds singing is soothing, because these sounds trigger ancient feelings of peace and comfort. Sharp, harsh noises are bad for our work; because they cause distractions, stress, and annoyance. They are also physically bad for us, as they affect our hormones (and can even cause health issues over a long time). In general, music helps when it leads to a positive mood; which in turn motivate us to work better and more efficiently.

Music to work to

So the best music to work to is some that you feel nothing for. It is also music that is comfortable and tuned to your particular needs. Studies find instrumental music to be exceedingly beneficial; while songs that have lyrics are the most distracting. If you want to use music while you work; play music that is just a little above the ambient sounds, so that it drown out the distractions and helps you focus.

Another great way to use music to boost productivity is to listen to something you really like before you start working. The positive mood that you will find yourself in after listening to something you enjoy will help jump-start mental activity; and you will start work with higher energy levels.

Not always a good idea!

It’s not all good news for the music listeners though. Other studies have found that when the task involves complex decisions; listening to music could distract us and increase the chances of making mistakes.

It’s also not a great idea to listen to music when trying to learn something new. Music – particularly songs with lyrics – can actively hurt our attempts at learning. The presence of any music can be distracting; but lyrics can actively keep us from what we are trying to learn. To our brain, this situation can feel like having to make sense of two people talking at the same time – which means a loss of focus, mistakes, and needing more time to understand things!

It doesn’t really matter if we like the music that is playing or not – all music is equally distracting during a difficult task. But this effect may be less when the music is so familiar that we don’t really pay attention to it. This may explain why some people can work well to music. They listen to the same music all the time; and with time it becomes a comfortable background against which they can focus fully on new information.

Its also a personality thing!

Who we are also seems to be a deciding factor! A study by Furnham and Bradley showed that our personality type moderates how much the presence of music affects learning. They asked extroverts and introverts to learn different material, some in silence and some while listening to pop music. The researchers found that while music did indeed disrupt learning for all people, introverted learners had more trouble than extroverts. It may be an introvert – who is more sensitive to surrounding sights and sounds – has more trouble tuning out the distracting music.