During the numerous study skills sessions we sat through in secondary school, the teachers drilled into us that listening to music while doing schoolwork or revision would stop us being able to concentrate, and mean our work wasn’t good enough or we wouldn’t remember anything we had revised. Yet, in the library the tables were usually full of pupils doing their work with headphones on. So what are the effects, positive and negative, of music on productivity?
Many of you will be aware to some degree of the "Mozart Effect”, including the myth that playing Mozart’s music to babies in the womb will make them more clever. The idea was based on a single study done in 1993 that suggested that listening to Mozart before taking the "spatial-temporal reasoning" section of an IQ test improved people’s performance. However, a 1999 paper showed that the supposed improvement in performance when completing cognitive tasks was instead caused by the improved mood from listening to Mozart’s music. Essentially, the music made people happy, and being happy improved their performance (though only very marginally) rather than the actual music. Modern studies have found very similar results, even when music is listened to while doing work as opposed to before; music makes people happier and this improves the quality of their work. Listening to music that we enjoy causes dopamine to be released in the brain, similarly to when consuming caffeine or sugar, which means that music we think is good “wakes up” the brain. Associating the rewarding behaviour of listening to music with getting stuff done means you train your brain to want to do work, which may well be a good productivity hack.
It is widely agreed that the impact of music on people’s concentration and productivity is largely based upon whether they enjoy the music. However, there is also evidence that listening to music that is too familiar, particularly with lyrics you understand or know by heart, is more distracting and can even feel like multitasking. So, if you listen to music while working it needs to be something you like, but not too much! There are many playlists and compilations of “productivity” and “concentration” music available on Spotify and YouTube, which some people think they need to be listening to in order to do their best work. For those who do believe that listening to music makes them work better and be more productive, they likely have a specific choice of music that they feel helps them complete their work, and it may well do if they enjoy it and it doesn’t divert their attention from their work.
Different types of work and tasks require varying levels of concentration, which means that some will be more affected by listening to music than others. Creative tasks like writing a fictional story require a different type of concentration to repetitive tasks like data entry. For a creative task, music with lyrics you don’t know and simple tunes with a slower tempo are best. For a repetitive, dull task, music can boost the person’s mood and help them stay alert and motivated to complete their work. If the work you do is mostly repetitive, listening to upbeat or complex music in particular can help make it easier to complete. It has also been shown that when doing tasks that need a high degree of concentration, such as a reading comprehension test, complex music is highly distracting and significantly hinders productivity.
Another thing to consider is the effect of listening to white noise or ambient sounds. There hasn’t been as much research on this as music, but there is some evidence to suggest that having a moderate level of background noise increases productivity for creative tasks more than having no sound, but high levels of noise decrease creativity. In recent years, the popularity of white/ambient noise, nature sounds and lo-fi music playlists has increased. Particularly, the idea of nature sounds supposedly boosting productivity is based on research that showed that taking “nature breaks” leads to increased productivity and decreased stress. White or ambient noise can be especially good for people who get too caught up in music and end up distracted, which is often true for musicians as their brain tries to analyse what they’re hearing.
Another interesting way that listening to music or ambient noise can help to increase your productivity is to minimise surrounding distractions such as traffic noise, building works or even the people around you. This is particularly true for the current global situation when many people have had to work at home in spaces that aren’t optimised for concentration, and contain even more distractions. Humans’ spatial awareness is highly dependent on sound, and taking this away can dramatically improve your concentration when working. In some cases, simply putting on a pair of over-ear headphones can dampen the ambient noice sufficiently enough to help you concentrate, as the ear cups create an airtight seal around your ears. However, you could take it one step further and use active noise cancelling headphones such as the rather niche Audio Techinca ATH-ANC900BT, or the mainstream and hugely popular AirPods Pro. These work by using miniature microphones within the headphones to constantly monitor the frequency of ambient sounds and then play the inverted sound frequency into your ears, so the two frequencies cancel each other out. This technology is particularly effective against low frequency background noise from devices such as air conditioning or general office hubbub, but it can also be sufficiently effective to allow your brain to think clearly and focus in an increasingly loud world. However, often the noise cancellation can be so powerful that if you choose to listen to music while using it, you will be completely oblivious to any noise around you!
It seems that listening to the right type of music can have a positive effect on productivity, and the type of music depends on the type of task. Since music releases dopamine in the brain and makes us happy, if you want to improve your productivity by listening to music, it should be something you enjoy, so that you associate work with feeling good and this will likely increase your productivity. As the scientific research is still relatively limited, see what your own productivity is like when listening to music or ambient noise with different headphones while doing your work tasks and then you can decide what works best for you.