5 Types of Music to Listen to While Working to Help You Productively Soundtrack Your Day

Photo: Getty Images/Luis Alvarez
People put on music to listen to while working for myriad reasons. Some may use it to pump themselves up, while others may lean on it as a tool for tightening their concentration. I, for one, often work in silence, but while sheltering in place to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, I've had a rough time staying motivated, so I've since reconsidered my stance on the powers of music for improving productivity. (I'll try anything right now.) And in fact, after finding a YouTube station titled entitled Lofi Hip Hop Radio—Beats to Relax/Study To, I've completely changed my stance on music to listen to while working. But my discovery did lead me to wonder: What makes certain pieces of music more work-friendly than others?

As it turns out, a piece of music being "work-friendly" is entirely subjective and dependent on what you, as a worker, find to be effective. "Our goal should be to continually look for those things that help us tune into our authentic frequencies," says career coach Erin Hatzikostas. "Once you can find your right frequency, then it's just a matter of turning the volume up higher and higher. Music isn't the only answer, but it's more than a metaphor; music can be a literal catalyst to help us tune into our highest, truest vibrational frequency."

Not sure where to start when it comes to finding your personal frequency? Career coach Maggie Mistal, for one, says she's found personal success in optimizing music for her Ayurvedic dosha of pitta. "In Ayurveda, it's believed that music can help balance out one's energy. So I looked up music for balancing pitta, and found flute music." She says it's helped her stay calm and focused and productive.

But does certain music to listen to while working actually make you more (or less!) productive? Or is it more of a placebo effect? Find out below.

Can listening to music make you more productive?

The short, sweet, and deeply unsatisfactory answer? It could. Some schools of thought contend that listening to music while working is a form of multitasking, which many say is not optimal for productivity. Because of this, the idea is we'd be better off pressing play 10 to 15 minutes before and after our work projects. Also worth noting though, is music can uplift and keep you steady through monotonous work. And also, some research suggests that certain music will or won't work for productivity, based on your boredom tolerance. That means when we make our musical selection, we want to consider how we use our music. What makes up our melodies, when we use one song versus another song, and which genre would be best for specific tasks.

Let's use classical music as an example. The "Mozart effect" has been linked to better concentration, higher intelligence, learning, and performing tasks more effectively. Furthermore, research supports that classical music can reinforce learning, making it a good choice when you're developing a new work skill. But simply listening classical music won't make you suddenly productive; instead, different components of a certain piece might.

That's because it's music that feels culturally familiar, and familiar music is something we can tune out. It's also void of lyrics, and it may be more impactful if listened to between tasks.

Types of music to avoid while working

As a general guideline, avoid music that's going to challenge the brain. Again, this boils down to a few different components: If you're trying to provide a background to your work (particularly if your work involves processing thoughts and words), steer clear of music with lyrics. Lyrics can give you mixed messages and distract you in the long run.

Highly complex structures of music can also jumble the brain and make it work overtime. That said, what you consider to be "complex" might rely on a boredom factor. Generally speaking though, you need less Swedish death metal with intricate guitar solos, and something more engaging than "Row, Row, Row, Your Boat."

Finally, there's plenty of research around how uplifting music can improve your mood and productivity simultaenously. That means a downer track like the "Imperial March" from Star Wars is not the way to go, no matter how evil your boss is. So what should you play, specifically? Check out solid tunes, below.

Below find 5-genre playlist of music to listen to while working

1. Classical music

As noted previously, classical music allows us to lean into what's familiar. In the above compilation of masterpieces everyone knows, skip ahead to the 2:42 mark. (Swan Lake is an absolute jam.)

2. Ambient music

Ambient music is an ideal option if you're looking for something very placid with a lot of room to wander. Like, if you're into masking the sound of external noises but white noise isn't your bag, a solid concentration-focused ambient compilation (like the one, above) can guide you through the end of the day.

3. Video game music

Originally I wanted to suggest the Banjo-Kazooie video game soundtrack, which is absolutely fantastic. But instead I'll be less niche and more of a generalist who can appeal to all by targeting this collection of soothing Nintendo 64 jams. Even without the nostalgia factor, this is a compilation of beautiful work that'll allow you to focus and level up your work.

4. Music infused with nature sounds

One 2015 study suggested that masking sound with tones that occur in nature helps increase mood and productivity. (I definitely feel my heart soaring working to this music and ambiance of the Shire from The Lord of the Rings; it's perfect if you want to hear the autumn breeze blowing, birds chirping, and Gandalf humming.

And finally, if you soft music with a gentle patter of rain, we have...

5. Lofi hip-hop beats to relax or study to

Just trust me on this one, okay?

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