Listening to music at work is one of those things that can be surprisingly controversial. Some people swear by their Spotify accounts for keeping them on-task. Others insist on total silence to get stuff done—a tall order given how common open floor-plans are now. And there’s definitely a subset of people who think that no matter if it helps or not, having headphones on at work is just flat-out unprofessional.
Well, music haters might be in the wrong on this one. One small study compared the productivity of software engineers over the course of five weeks, seeing how much work they accomplished while working in silence versus with music playing in the background. It turns out that they finished their work faster when music was playing. Why? The engineers were happier, and happy workers are productive workers.
However, the science of music and productivity is a bit more complicated than just “music is good.” Its effectiveness on your work actually depends on a few factors. Here’s what you should know before putting together your Beyoncé-themed office playlist:
The type of music matters
Not all music is best-suited for plowing through your to-do list; what you listen to is key. Music psychologist and scientist David Greenberg, PhD, points to one 2007 study in particular that had surprising and unexpected results. “The researchers played different types of music—that the participants were unfamiliar with—while they performed cognitive, problem-solving tasks,” he says. “What they found was music that had dissonance, or a lack of harmony, actually contributed to them finishing the tasks quicker.”
Dissonant music typically uses notes that don’t sound quite right together to create tension in the melody, rather than just sticking to the same nice-sounding chords all the way through. While any genre of music can have dissonance, it’s very commonly used in rock music, from Black Sabbath to Sonic Youth.
This might seem counterintuitive (heavy metal at work?!) but Dr. Greenberg says that dissonant music can make its listeners be more alert, thereby increasing productivity. Meanwhile, listening to the Beach Boys (those sweet, sweet, five-part harmonies) could be a bit too relaxing.
To this point, Dr. Greenberg says it’s also best to play music that isn’t going to make you sleepy. “Anecdotally I would argue that music you don’t know would be better for productivity, because familiar songs can be distracting,” Dr. Greenberg says.
What you’re doing matters, too
The other factor: What kind of work you’re doing. The brain works differently depending on if the task is repetitive, like manual labor or factory work, performing surgery, or reading and writing—and thus, it’s kind of a mixed bag.
Generally though, music seems pretty beneficial to lots of jobs. One study from the ’70s found that music helps when it comes to the productivity of repetitive tasks. Another study in The Journal of the American Medical Association actually found that music can help surgeons perform better during procedures. People who work in IT might also benefit from music; a 2005 study found that those in the IT field who listened to music completed their work faster and had better ideas than those who didn’t. Meanwhile, research is mixed when it comes to listening to music while reading and writing (it can hurt some people’s performance, but not all).
Of course, don’t just listen to metal music because on paper it may make you more productive—your tastes absolutely play in here, too. “You also have to think about how personality plays a role,” Dr. Greenberg says. “That will affect not only the type of music someone likes, but the type of jobs and careers they gravitate toward, too.” To this end, he created a quiz that can help people figure out the type of music that works best specifically for them taking into account personality, thinking style, and the type of music you like.
Because music is so varied—as are personalities and jobs—it’s almost impossible for scientists to issue a blanket statement that listening to music while you work definitely leads to better productivity (or not). But the science does lean towards supporting it. So if it makes you happy, grab your headphones and rock—and work—on.
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