How to Maximize Your Productivity With Music

October 25th 2015

Mackensie Graham

Middle of the workday, and it starts: the noises. Over the cubicle walls—or, worse, wafting through the air of the open office plan—is the sniffing of the guy with the seasonal allergies, the woman who takes calls (loudly) on speakerphone, the intern who seems to type louder than humanly possible.

Maybe this is why headphones were invented. As if you needed any more reason to stick small speakers in your ear canals, the University of Birmingham, England is in your corner. A study (first published in 1972) shows that listening to music has a positive effect on efficiency in repetitive work, even if there’s unfavorable machine noise present (you can include your colleagues in this category). 

So if you’re doing something that is highly consistent and repetitive—like copying and pasting large amounts of data—go ahead and turn on your favorite tunes.

A more recent study suggests that it’s not the music itself, but rather an improved mood from music, that results in a productivity boost, thanks to the release of the “pleasure chemical” dopamine. 

Before you start lip-synching, there’s a slew of science to tell you what type of groove will work best for you.

1. Size of the volume bar matters 

Delving into a creative task? Be like Goldilocks and make it not too loud and not too soft. Allow the music to flow at a moderate (70 decibels) level instead of a low level (50 decibels) to enhance creative task performance. Why, you ask? Because a moderate setting generates a good perception level, which encourages promoted abstract processing that results in increased levels of creativity. Higher than that (something like 85 decibels), and creativity gets damaged because of a reduction of information processing in the brain. 

Not feeling music? Take your laptop to the corner cafe, plug-in, and soak up a moderate level of background noise.

2. Words get in the way

Ever tried to write a report while the guy from accounting won’t stop talking near your desk?

It’s a challenge. A distracting environment is often the result of chatter that is clearly understandable: Sounds classified as “speech” have been shown to be the most distracting to study participants, compared with “masked speech” and “continuous noise.”

Lyrics can be great when tackling a physical task (like cleaning out the marketing closet), but for any language-intensive work (such as writing or reading), lyrics can destroy all hope of focus. 

3. Ambient sets the ambiance

If you need to tackle a creative task and are driven just as crazy by silence as by the chatter about the office, then cue the ambient music.

Ambient is both easily ignorable and engrossing; it was originally designed to relax the thinking mind while offering just enough stimulation for inspiration. The repetition creates a soundscape of building melodies (unlike the rise and fall of some classical music). There are many variants of the ambient genre: Consider “chillout,” “downtempo,” and certain types of “intelligent dance music.”

4. Embrace nature

If you’ve tried music, and it’s not jiving with your work setting, consider the background sounds of nature.

Natural sounds with magical names like rain, country garden, and ocean have a masking quality. Such sounds can enhance cognitive function and concentration.

Not digging on nature without really being outside? Maybe white noise is your jam: Check out SimplyNoise to get your daily dose of sounds in "colors" of white, pink, and brown. 

5. Cue the classical

Classical music is a natural for masking the noise of office people. Press play on Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons;" scientific studies affirm its cognitive benefits.

Vivaldi and his Baroque period contemporaries composed music that helps stabilize bodily rhythms and allows you to reach a level of deep concentration and focus to better process large amounts of content. Why isn't this true of music of the Romantic era? Because Baroque music features light and expressive melodies that allow for a flow of music without the earworm themes of other, more assertive compositions.

And, heck, if it works for radiologists, it’ll probably work for you too.

Evaluate your work and workplace to see what type of environment you want to create in your mind. Let this drive your playlist picks on streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify, and 8tracks. Then cue up iTunes or dive into your compiled collection, and get to work!