(This post first appeared on my Psychology Today blog earlier this week. It’s different from anything I’ve written here, so I thought you might enjoy it!)
Does listening to music boost productivity?
It’s an interesting question, one I’ve never really thought about before. I’m sure some people really hope it does…like the ones who play music at restaurants. Many retailers and other service-type businesses use environmental music to influence the moods and behaviors of their consumers. Ever notice how some restaurants have bright lights and play music with a fast tempo? It’s a completely different feel than your favorite Italian restaurant, with the soft music and dimmed lighting. The theory is that by influence environmental stimuli, one restaurant is trying toe increase turnover while the other wants you to hang out and purchase that extra bottle of wine.
But what about personal productivity? Can listening to music help increase your focus, improve your efficiency, and boost your work performance?
To date, there haven’t been many studies on the subject. Here’s a summary of what’s out there so far:
- Fox & Embrey (1972): Listening to background music helped improve the efficiency of performing a repetitive task.
- Newman & Hunt (1966): Employees enjoyed the background music, but there was no effect on their productivity.
- Blood & Ferriss (1993). Background music did not make a difference in productivity, but there was a difference if the music was in a major key instead of a minor key.
- Lesliuk (2005): The effect of music on work performance may be due to music making the person feel in a positive mood state.
In conclusion: it’s inconclusive. Not only are there few studies on the subject, but the overall results are all over the board.
Anecdotally, many people use background music when they work. And from what we know about how music impacts brain and behavior function, there are certain things to keep in mind about the music you choose that may make it a more successful experience for you:
- Use music with no words. As soon as you add words, you activate language centers in your brain, which interferes with any other language “tasks” you may need to work on (reading, writing, talking, etc.). Listen to music that doesn’t include words…at least words you can understand. Enya uses words, but because of how she sings them, you can’t understand what she’s saying.
- Silence is a kind of music. I say that music is made up of two things: sounds and silences. Silence can be just as effective as music. It may be that listening to music interferes with your ability to focus. If that’s the case, try working in silence. But if music is too much, and silence too little, try a white noise machine or listen to nature-type sounds.
- Listen to music you like. One theory behind why music may help increase productivity is that it helps you feel better. Music taps into the emotional centers in our brain. It can make us feel happy, sad, angry, or scared. Generally, we are more productive when in a positive mood state. So listen to music that puts you in a positive mood state. Classical, New Age, Gregorian chants, Techno…listen to music you enjoy.
- Try different speeds, or tempos, of music. There are some people who claim that music at certain tempos influence certain types of brain waves (e.g. alpha, theta, etc.). Me…I’m not so sure. But I do think tempo makes a difference. Generally speaking, faster music helps us feel more energized and heightens our awareness. Slower music helps us feel more calm and relaxed. If you work better in a more energized state, have music playing that’s faster and more energetic. However, it you prefer a zen-like relaxed calm when you work, listen to music that’s on the slower side.
- Take musical breaks. Just as you should take a 5-minute break for every hour of work, your ears need a break from music. We entrain, or get used to, the environment we are in. It’s why you can sleep comfortably in your own home, but have a harder time falling asleep in a new place, with all the foreign sounds and “bumps in the night” you’re not used to. Your brain will focus better if you periodically change the input it receives. From a “background music” perspective, this means occasionally turning the music off or changing the CD.
In short, if listening to music helps you work better and be more productive…then do it!
What do you think? If you have ideas and recommendations for how you use music to boost your productivity, please leave a comment in the field below.
Special thanks to Coach Claudine, who was the first to ask me about music and productivity.