It’s a Tuesday morning, and you have a noon deadline. Time to concentrate and start cranking. You pop in your headphones—the in-office “do not disturb” sign—and scroll through your music library for a beat to get you in the zone.
Music has often been a source of debate when it comes to workflow. Does listening distract you from what else you’re doing? Or does it focus you, motivating you with its steady beat?
A Mindlab International study found that 81 percent of participants worked fastest and 88 percent produced their best results when listening to music. Overall, nine out of ten workers perform best with musical accompaniment. Dr. David Lewis, chairman of Mindlab International, said, “[Music] can exert a highly beneficial influence over employee morale and motivation, helping enhance output and even boosting a company’s bottom line.”
Even if you’re not in the melodically inclined majority, music stimulates the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that regulates pleasure and mood. And better productivity comes as a byproduct of a better mood. Several studies have proven music’s role in impacting our emotions and task-related behaviors. Those who listen to music write and count quicker, make decisions faster, are more willing to socialize, and have overall greater happiness.
The benefits of listening to music are clear, but what’s the best music to listen to? The answer is that it depends on your melodic preferences and type of work. In general, music makes boring things more enjoyable. To get through some busy work, blast whatever you like. But when you’re working through a challenging project, it’s more important to be strategic about what’s pumping in your ears.
To Be Productive: Choose Ambient Music
Ambient music, characterized as unobtrusive and atmospheric melodies, is ideal for productivity. It helps reduce the chance for mistakes and improves the accuracy of data entry, according to Mindlab International’s research. As a result of five experiments, ambient noise is also proven to enhance creative performance. The results show that a moderate level of background noise is best compared to working conditions with high noise, low noise, or no noise at all. But make sure the tune is word-free. Especially in open-office settings, research proves that speech is the most distracting element. When aiming for your peak efficiency, avoid lyrical music. Can’t find a non-lyrical tune you like? Opt for the instrumental versions of your favorite songs. Or check out artists such as Jon Hopkins, Moby, and Air to start compiling your productive playlist.
To Drown Out Distractions: Pick Natural Sounds
Music that includes natural sounds such as rain, water, or wind improves cognitive functioning, concentration, and overall workplace satisfaction. Sound masking, the creation of discreet background noise to stifle surrounding sounds, is a popular technique used in office settings to prevent disruptive noises. A two-year study found that participants had a greater memory of numbers and words in work environments with sound masking. KarmaCosmic, Liquid Mind, Nature, and Pure Sounds are all good options for a naturalistic soundtrack. An ambient, lyric-less track with touches of nature sounds is the ideal combo for office productivity.
To Work Quickly: Put On Some Pop
Working toward a tight deadline? Need your work to be pretty much perfect? You may want to turn up some Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran, or Ellie Goulding. Mindlab International’s research found that pop music helped participants work fast, specifically for tasks involving data entry. If you have little time for reworking or are tasked with mindless data entry, queue up some bopping pop tracks.
To Become a Math Whiz: Go with Classical Music
You don’t need to be a mathematician to benefit from classical music. Whatever level of math is involved, classical tunes such as Beethoven and Bach can improve the accuracy of your calculations, whether you’re balancing your checkbook or auditing taxes. Mozart’s compositions in particular have been the subject of several studies investigating the phenomenon known as The Mozart Effect. After listening to Mozart’s sonata, subjects showed improvement in spatial reasoning skills including memory and reasoning. Though not a long-lasting effect, Mozart can bring on bursts of productivity to launch you into a get-it-done mode.
To Focus In on the Details: Turn Up Some Dance Rhythms
When proofing work, choose some fun dance beats. Dance music enhances your attention to detail to identify and rectify errors in written work. Study participants who jammed to dance songs finished their tasks 20 percent faster than those who didn’t and had a higher rate of spell-checking accuracy. Let David Guetta, Avicii, and Calvin Harris guide you through a proof-heavy task.
To Motivate and De-stress: Put On Your Go-to Tunes
If you’re thinking, “Pop isn’t my thing, classical puts me to sleep, and dance is a bit much,” revert to your go-to jams. Remember, you have to enjoy the music for the full productive effect. When it’s crunch time, your stress levels inevitably increase. Listening to your favorite tunes—rock, electronic, country, alternative, whatever they might be—ensures the production of dopamine to enhance your motivation and relieve stress. When in doubt, opt for familiar and favorite beats.
When Learning Something New: Turn the Music Off
Because learning a new skill, process, or theory takes extra mental energy, don’t listen to music of any kind. A University of Wales study found that performance for complex tasks decreased when participants were listening to music. Don’t risk it! Press pause to fully grasp new material. When the new becomes known, then take advantage of music’s productivity benefits, and use whatever instrumental combination works for you. However, researcher Nick Perham, who led the University of Wales study, recommends listening to music right before you begin a complicated assignment to benefit from its mood-boosting effect.
Wherever you fall on the musical preference spectrum, use this research to optimize your tune selections while you work. As I researched and wrote this article, I switched between my favorite electronic dance music and ambient tunes. This combination let me balance the motivating impact of the music I find the most enjoyable, the proofreading benefits of dance beats, and the optimal productivity effects of ambient tunes. It worked for me!
Photo Credit: Kevin Morris