Music’s impact on productivity has been acknowledged as early as 1972, when the industrial efficiency research journal Applied Ergonomics published a study linking the two. The findings: “economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry.” In plain language: Listening to music while working can make a worker more productive.
The nature of work and the workplace itself have undergone massive transformation in the almost five decades since the study’s publication (case in point: it was largely based on “blue collar” industrial labour, a sector that has shrunk considerably). Nevertheless, its conclusion remains as pertinent as ever – if not more so when taking into account the seemingly infinite productivity-killers of the open-plan office and at-home work environments.
It’s no secret that many people use music and sound as tools for tuning out extraneous stimulus and getting “in the zone.” But the science goes beyond plugging in the headphones and blindly hitting play. Peak productive output is based on what it is you choose to listen to when.
So before you jump right into that classical, jazz or EDM playlist, here’s how to optimize your listening habits and music playlists for maximum productivity while working.
A Genre for Every Occasion
Your choice of background audio should be dictated by what it is you are setting out to accomplish. This is because different types of music and sound interact with our cognitive function in different ways.
If you’re settling into a brainstorming, research mode or a feedback session, the optimal soundscape for this task would differ from one best suited to creating an intricate spreadsheet or doing data entry. In other words: choosing the right genre can make or break productive output.
For Focus and Deep Work
The renowned Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recommends “an unobtrusive background sound, possessing the appropriate spectral characteristics” to replicate the “acoustical comfort” office engineers strive to create in the ideal open-concept workplace design.
“Natural” sounds are best for this: Not only does this kind of noise block out other, irrelevant noise (a technique called “sound masking”), but it can also enhance cognitive functioning, optimize the ability to concentrate, and increase overall satisfaction. So what is a natural sound? Think outdoors: waves and flowing water, wind blowing in trees, birds chirping, rainforest sounds, whale songs…
Recommended listening: Nature Sounds playlist via Spotify
For Creative Thinking and Problem Solving
According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, listening to anything at too low or too high a volume may actually inhibit your creative thinking. Choosing a “moderate” volume is just right – setting the sound just loud enough that it interferes with your brain’s processing activity (this happens at around 70 decibels) triggers abstract processing. Finding a level within that specific middle-ground threshold activates a different kind of thinking that enhances creative output. So adjust accordingly to optimize for those unexpected ideas and off-beat solutions that catch you off-guard.
Recommended listening: Brain.fm’s “Groove” via YouTube
For Communicating and Collaboration
Pick a song or playlist in a major key when a task or project involves working with others. Compared to minor key background music, songs in a major key are proven to create both improved satisfaction with communication and higher levels of productivity – a home run for collaborative ventures. Put a mix of major songs on during a work session in the conference room or while updating the team over Slack and you’re likely to notice an enhanced team dynamic and overall outcome from your group work.
Recommended listening: Positive Vibes playlist via Spotify
For High Stakes Moments
If you’re working on something you’re stressed about – maybe preparing for a big presentation – you can mellow out by putting on synth-y music with soothing melodies that sample acoustic and electronic tracks. Actually, one song in particular is said to be a particularly effective stress-buster, maybe even the most relaxing song in the world. The song was written in conjunction with psych experts, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the independent firm Mindlab International. They ultimately noted a 65% reduction in anxiety and a 35% reduction in baseline resting rates in subjects who listened to the song while attempting to solve difficult puzzles.
Recommended listening: Weightless by Marconi Union via YouTube
For Long-Haul Projects
When you’re in the thick of big, complex projects that seem to stretch on for weeks and even months, it’s easy to feel discouraged and overwhelmed. But maintaining a positive outlook is an important part of the formula for putting out fresh and innovative work. The good news: listening to upbeat music consistently over a two-week period can make you a happier person. Moreover, it’s widely accepted as fact in the field of organizational psychology that happier people get more done – and they often get it done better than their gloomier colleagues. If you find yourself in a slump, try adding upbeat tunes to your everyday soundtrack – and be sure to listen for a minimum of 12 minutes each day.
Recommended listening: Happy Hits on Apple Music
For Speed and Repetitive Tasks
In another study, Mindlab International found that pop music is the secret to getting through tedious repetitive tasks like data entry and proof reading efficiently – and crucially, without compromising accuracy. Dance music in particular was shown to have a particular influence on the speed and accuracy with which participants completed tasks. So if your work involves updating spreadsheets and reviewing documents – or even if you just want to give an important e-mail a once-over before hitting send – best have those club and radio hits on hand in your preferred music app.
Recommended Listening: Dance Pop Hits via Spotify
Ultimately, whether music and audio has the power to enhance your productive output will depend on who you are and how your brain works. While using audio as a productivity strategy has been shown to yield results for people with a low need for external stimulation, others might find that having any kind of auditory input unrelated to the task at hand is a distraction. There’s only one way to find out which one is you – so plug in those headphones (or don’t, if you have the luxury of a home office) and get to work.
See what happens.