owadays listing to music while working is quite common and may even be the norm. Access to music is even easier, as we all have our favorite music available on demand, from a variety of streaming services (Spotify, Pandora, Songza, etc). In noisy environments we often turn to music to serve as an escape. Even so, what impact does music have and does it really help our productivity?
The answer is, it depends, but for most situations music appears to have a positive impact.
Research has shown that listening to your favorite tunes encourages the release of dopamine (the happy chemical) in the pleasure center of the brain. In short, music can make us happy and improve our mood, making our work more enjoyable.
There’s nothing like music to relieve the soul and uplift it.Mickey Hart
It’s not so simple though – the type of work you’re doing and your skill level has an impact on the benefit and type of music you should be listening to. There are two ends to the work task spectrum: simple tasks and immersive tasks. Simple tasks are straightforward, mundane, and often repetitive. You’re able to complete these tasks with little thought, but they may be tedious. On the other hand, immersive tasks take more concentration and you have to focus more on what you’re doing.
At the same time, your skill level also has a role to play. Your ability on a task ranges from beginner to expert. Essentially you’re either just learning how to do something, which requires more concentration, or you’ve done it a million times and know if like the back of your hand.
With these variables in mind, here’s a rundown of how to get the most out of your music when you’re trying to work.
1. Anything Goes For Simple Tasks
If you’re doing something that is repetitive or easy, you can pretty much listen to anything you want. Lyrics, volume, and genre are essentially non-factors. If you fully comprehend the task and already know how to achieve your goal, music can have a positive impact and you can rock out to anything. If it puts you in a good mood, it makes the task easier to bear, and the time will pass more quickly.
2. Lyrics Make Language Based Tasks Difficult
If you’re trying to write, read or do other language centered tasks, lyrics in music can be a major distraction. The competing words between the lyrics and the task can divide your focus, so it’s better to listen to instrumentals or classical music in these cases. On the other hand, visual tasks, such as design or programming aren’t impacted as much by lyrics.
3. When Learning, Avoid Music
If you’re facing a difficult task or trying to learn something new that you’re unfamiliar with, music can be more distracting than helpful. In these situations, you often need 100% focus to make progress on the task, so music can have a negative impact. You’re better off in a quiet environment or putting on those noise-cancelling head phones to block out all distractions.
4. For Immersive Tasks Ambient Sounds Are Ideal
If you’re working on something in that sweet spot, that’s both challenging, but still approachable, ambient sounds are ideal. These include things like instrumentals, classical, and lounge music, as well as environmental sounds like rain and waves. The music often fades to the background and is hardly noticeable when you’re in the zone or in a state of flow. Ambient Sounds are ideal because they don’t divide your attention, but still put you in a positive mood.
5. Familiarity Rules All
Ultimately, none of this really matters if you simply listen to something that you’re familiar with. Music you’ve listened to hundreds of times and know by heart, more easily fades into the background as you work. This creates the perfect storm, as the music creates a positive mood, while not distracting you from the task at hand (assuming that your familiarity with the music is due to the fact that you enjoy it).
Based on what I gleaned from the research, I came up with the framework above that serves as a basic guide on when to use a certain type of music. Of course everyone is different, so these are more suggestions than rules. For example, if you’re an expert at something, you can probably listen to whatever you want and still not be distracted.
There are also those that can’t handle listening to music at all and simply prefer silence or the bustle of a coffee shop, which has also been shown to have a positive impact on creativity. If you’re looking to recreate these types of scenarios check out these awesome websites:
- Coffitivity: recreate the coffee house sounds you love
- Simply Noise: pick from a range of white noise to block out other sounds
- Rainy Mood: be productive during a storm
Ultimately, music has a positive impact on your productivity and it just depends on finding the right music for the right situation.
Bonus Related But Not Really Link: Check out this great TED Talk about Music and Repetition.