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How Music Affects Productivity

Posted April 14, 2017 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

My best days are when I’m so in the zone that I don’t even hear the music in my headphones anymore. But does the music really help me be more productive? Is it the type of music I’m listening to that’s helping or hurting? What kind of music should I listen to (or not listen to) for maximum productivity?

Research on music and productivity all support the idea that it’s work first, music second. Music shouldn’t be the main focus during a productive session because we only have so much attention to give at any one time. While there is a significant amount of research on music and productivity, the research conflicts in opinion, was poorly designed, and is not summarized in a way that gives the precise effect music has on our workplace performance.

Here are five consistent ideas that showed up in the research:

1. Our limited attention. Music, and background noise such as in a coffee shop, does consume some of our attention. Listening to music makes you feel more productive because it stimulates your brain to release more dopamine—but, overall, you accomplish less as you listen because the song you’re listening to occupies some of your limited attention. Even if the music is simple and calming, such as classical, it is still consuming your attention.

There are times when listening to music can help with productivity such as when you’re in a distracting office environment. But if your office is quiet or the coffee shop conversations fade into a hum…you’re better off without the music.

2. Habitual tasks. When you’re working on something that requires a lot of thought, music can be a distraction. However, music aids in the performance of repetitive and monotonous habitual tasks. This is because with habitual tasks, it’s easy to get bored so music can increase arousal and help you pay more attention to your work.

3. Music and mood. Music causes the brain to release more dopamine, a pleasure chemical that lifts mood and makes us feel happier. Listening to music during a work break is the best of both worlds because music enhances your mood and will lead you to perform better once you get back to work.

4. Familiarity is key. Research shows that we prefer and are less distracted by music we are familiar with. These songs boost our mood and brain activity more than unfamiliar tunes. Music doesn’t affect productivity directly, rather it affects our mood and energy, which in turn affects how productive we are.

5. Extroverts like to jam out. There is some research that shows that background distractions almost always impair the performance of introverts more than extroverts. The effect is moderate but not extreme and both types do take a performance hit.

Studies about music and productivity can be misleading. Someone who listened to music all day will almost always report being more productive than usual—not necessarily because they got more done, but because the music they listened to gave them more energy.

So the takeaways: if you’re going to listen to music, listen to songs you are familiar with, that are less complex, and turn it down when you really need to focus.

Do you listen to music while you work? What kind of music? Do you find it helpful or distracting?

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#1

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 8:34 AM

When I had a fabrication shop... the workers would play various music,... mostly country...

I had hired a pretty good welder, he was young, but the welds and color were a thing of beauty ... but he was really into grunge type music... sounded like they were a bunch of yelling pi$$ed off Germans yelling and were hoarse.

The guy had an attitude, and the music gave everyone else an attitude... at the music, at the music that is... It didn't take me long, because I will not compete with it... and dropped the hammer with no music.... got pretty quiet in the shop.. for a while. I had to leave that guy go... because he was stealing. (When he took his tool box... home, I inspected... it passed... but one drawer did shut properly... I looked closer and it had a compartment in back of it... and low and behold... it had one of the shops leather welding jackets stuffed in there.

I have to say,... that this type of music really has negatively effects peoples attitudes... even the ones that liked it.

btw,... within days, the shop asked if they can turn the radio on... which I didn't have a problem with.

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#2

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 10:06 AM

I used to listen to classical music, mostly baroque and mostly single instruments or chamber music, when I was writing or working on something like a spreadsheet. I wore out a vinyl recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach's Two and Three-Part Inventions back in the day.

Anything with words is distracting. Anything I love induces me to stop working and start listening. Anything with a great beat makes me want to get up and start moving.

These days I find that listening to talking helps me concentrate -- sort of like sitting in a coffee shop with the drone of murmuring voices.

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#3

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 11:08 AM

I find music hugely distracting when I'm trying to concentrate. Any kind of music. One company I was at decided to play Muzak over their PA. My productivity went straight down the bog. Horrible renditions of familiar tunes. I asked them several times to shut the 'music' off. They would not, so I finally got a stepladder, reached up and disconnected the speaker.

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#6
In reply to #3

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 1:40 PM

For me,... if it's not annoying rap or grudge... I'm don't hear a thing when concentrating.

bit I do know,... I'm not as focused as I used to be when I'm concentrating

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#7
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 2:16 PM

Must be nice not to have ADHD. Distractions are a real killer. For years my condition went undiagnosed and therefore untreated. A huge uphill battle every day. Was finally diagnosed at age 42 (it was wonderful even just to have a name for it other than 'character flaw' and 'stupid'). Meds helped enormously but now, at my age, they're far too dangerous for me to take without significant risk of stroke or heart attack. Ah, well, c'est la vie.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 3:47 PM

I empathize. I was almost 50 when I was diagnosed and got ritalin. Looking back I realize that the fact that I could drink caffeine all day and all night and still sleep indicated something. I had to have it to calm down. I think that ADHD is why I like having noise in the background at work.

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#10
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 3:53 PM

White/pink noise in the background helps considerably because it tends to mask other sounds, but sporadic sounds and sounds with a discernable pattern (a beat, for ex) are no-nos.

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#15
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 7:41 PM

I don't know why you OTed this...

I remember doing the same thing. I generated a wav file with Matlab, using a rand function and low pass filtering it to color the noise pink, which is more pleasant to listen to. It was very effective at masking distracting conversation.

Unfortunately, I found when I put it into a loop to make it continuous, there was an annoying click when it repeated. I alleviated this by tapering the beginning and end, but the repeat was still obvious.

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#12
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 3:59 PM

Looking back I realize that the fact that I could drink caffeine all day and all night and still sleep indicated something. I had to have it to calm down.

I think that may be an addiction..

I was a very heavy coffee drinker since 16, I started at 8 with coffee on my shredded wheat, with heavy sugar.. at 16, I had 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning (and a box of cereal to hold me over till breakfast before I went out in the barn... and for breakfast, 6 cups of coffee, 6 eggs scrambled, half a loaf of bread, and 1/2 pound of butter...., I needed another cup or two at 10:00, 4 cups with my lunch, and 3-4 cups for supper... I tapered off when I turned 22... thankfully. And slept beautifully.

And at 6'-2" barely 185 lbs at the time, now I wish I was at 220 instead of 235.

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#14
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 4:25 PM

Not necessarily an addiction. Stimulants have a calming effect on those with ADHD, even the first time they take them. Nearly an opposite effect than it has with others. The med I took - Adderall - is a dextroamphetamine salt. Very powerful stimulant which, for 'Nons,' would make them buzz like a Mack truck for hours (on the street they don't call it 'Speed' for nothing). When I took it I could sleep like a baby.

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#9
In reply to #7

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 3:50 PM

It must take quite a bit of energy just staying focus in the best situations... drugs help... unfortunately one has compromises when you do that.

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#11
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 3:56 PM

It's exhausting.

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#23
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/17/2017 7:38 AM

German soldiers use pervitin and Japs was hooked on speed during WW2.

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#26
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/17/2017 2:02 PM

I never made it through ADHD, actually I am stuck on DDDD.

My wife thinks I need to be on speed. She just wants me pearly whites to fall out.

I will stick to my periodic cold beer bout. I tall boy Coors every three months.

Saves calls to the plumber.

But there again, the wife does cause me to suffer from beernittis. (That incessant high-pitched ringing in my ears when I am drinking beer, and she is near.)

But, Your Honor, it was only the one can. Have to maintain appearances, eh wot?

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#4

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 12:41 PM

I mainly used music with headphones to block out the conversations of others in the office. There seemed to be the misguided idea that if you could hear what others were doing, you would be more productive.

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#5
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 12:49 PM

"There seemed to be the misguided idea that if you could hear what others were doing, you would be more productive."

I suspect many of these misguided ideas are most often proffered by psych majors who've never actually had to work for a living - or don't know how.

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#13

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 4:04 PM

I do not listen to music when i am concentrating, its a distraction. I have an ability to concentrate deeply as i have Aspergers (who would have thought there was an advantage?).

Wife #4 ( i just give them numbers now) once stated that when i was working on a problem the house could burn down around me. But repetitive sounds like drums break my concentration.

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#17
In reply to #13

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 11:28 PM

I too have an inhuman concentration ability, I don't even register people talking directly to me, though I must respond on a subconscious level because I'm told I said x or y but I have no recollection of it. I have noticed that if any obnoxious noise ie kids arguing, I get agitated more and more as time passes to the point of an angry outburst by myself. I don't know what you would call it but it is useful for coding.

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#16

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/14/2017 11:04 PM

Due to a hearing loss I cannot work with any noise but on the farm my father has a radio playing classical all the time and according to him the cows liked it based on the milk production. In one shop we were able to play a radio but I insisted that the staff keep the volume down to a reasonable level for me.

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#18

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/15/2017 4:56 AM

I read a recent report on research that shows that listening to music boosts mental activity. Apparently, extroverts need that boost to maximise their mental activity. However introverts can maximise their mental activity without external stimuli. Any additional stimuli pushes them over the optimum level and becomes a distraction. As an introvert I have found that true in my my experience.

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#19

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/15/2017 5:34 AM

Hi Chelsey,

A Project during the Organizational Behaviour II Course at IIM, Bangalore, required of us to do one of interest to each student. I took up "Music and Productivity". Material on the subject was available in plenty at the Institute's Library (no googling then). But it was based on Research done abroad. When I so desired, I was introduced to a Doctor at NIMHANS Bangalore who had done some study on Indian Classical Music - Hindustani and Carnatic Music. I wanted to capitalize on the origins of Indian Classical Music and the power these have over us. What he told me went above my head, but I sincerely noted it all down, starting with rocks, animals, birds and the development into the various forms. What I then submitted as my Project Report, the Professor confessed, went above his head too. But then he gave me an "A"!

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#20

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/15/2017 7:25 AM

I don't really need background music going while I work. The noise in my head is usually more than enough but given the choice I prefer to have rock or heavy alternative music going.

I can't focus if I am content and happy so I need to have a bit of quiet/medium rage running through my mind while I work. Without it I can't focus or motivate properly.

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#21

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/16/2017 4:59 PM

I am a good musician and thus prefer silence if I am focusing on something. I don't want the distraction. I want facts, like name of work, who wrote it and why, but don't usually care who is performing. Anyone good enough to be recorded is good enough for me.

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#22

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/17/2017 7:13 AM

Mean while in the office

But, I do think there's an appropriate place for everything.

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#24

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/17/2017 9:35 AM

I find playing music while working in the office helps me focus a bit more. There are many distractions at the office including sounds and email. (I found the best productivity enhancer is to close down your email client for periods of time.)

We are going to be installing a sound masking system at our office in the near future. The system is designed to fill the room with ambient white noise type sounds. Has anyone had any experience with such a system?

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#25

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/17/2017 9:50 AM

This is a legit experiment on plant production sensitivity to music. Its rather interesting

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#27

Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/19/2017 1:41 PM

It depends. If I'm painting a wall, any music I like helps. But if I am trying to compose a report, I find music with a vocal component (lyrics) distracting.

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#28
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Re: How Music Affects Productivity

04/19/2017 2:55 PM

It is indeed detrimental to be writing one's doctoral dissertation on chemical physics of excited state clumps of magnesium atoms, when the words all start to sound like

"Stairway to Heaven".

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