How music can boost your productivity

Can Hot Chip help you hit deadlines? Bach make you better at research? Does the Wu-Tang Clan work wonders with spreadsheets? Let’s explore how music affects your brain – and whether the right tunes can boost your productivity.

Written by Alastair Roy
Published 12 June 2020
Share
How music can boost your productivity

Beats for your brain


When you listen to music, your brain releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good and reduces anxiety. [1] Studies also show that when you’re in your happy place, you work smarter. As psychotherapist Merriam Saunders, says, "Dopamine is what stimulates the prefrontal cortex, which is the centre of the brain responsible for planning, organising, inhibition control and attention." [2]

But it’s not all about critical thinking. Music also stirs the grey cells that respond to “euphoria-inducing stimuli”. When you listen to a tune, you plug into the brain’s reward system – associating productivity with pleasure. [3]

There is a catch. You only enjoy this rush with music you enjoy listening to. So, the office radio won’t work for everyone.

The right tune for the right task


Your typical day at work probably involves different types of task. So, is listening to music better suited to some jobs over others? Many of us reach for our headphones to help do ‘grunt work’ – those repetitive, potentially boring tasks.

In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin discovers that music doesn’t just help pass the time during repetitive tasks. It actually increases concentration. He cites a study where music helped surgeons perform better at non-surgical tasks. [4]

But is there more to music than sound-tracking admin? Research from the Psychology of Music found that software developers enjoyed more positive moods, higher quality of work and improved efficiency when they listen to music. Interestingly, they also learned new tasks faster with background music. [5]

colour-music-banner-1-small.jpg

Turning up creativity


Not all scientists are convinced by the positive effects of music, though. In a 2019 study, researchers found that background music “significantly impaired” verbal creative tasks such as word puzzles. [6] But what about big picture thinking?

Research from journal PLOS ONE found that listening to “happy”, “upbeat” and “stimulating” music improves our “divergent thinking”. The researchers describe it as “making unexpected combinations, recognising links among remote associates, or transforming information into unexpected forms.” In the world of business, you’ve probably heard this as “thinking outside the box”. [7]

Tuning out


In his book, The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain, Mark Beeman expands on divergent thinking. He argues that the music that makes us happy also eases anxiety – helping us lose focus. This is actually a good thing, because it stops you getting caught up with ideas that don’t work. Instead, you look for new approaches. [8]

Music, Beeman argues, slips the brain into the “incubation” mode when you mull over a problem at an unconscious level. It’s there you “dredge up” new ideas. He likens coming up with creative ideas to seeing a star. “You have to look at it out of the corner of your eye,” and “take your focus off the strong, obvious ideas to avoid squashing the others.” [9]

Cognitive behavioural therapist Dr. Emma Gray has found a common beat to this relaxed, creative mind state. Specifically, 50 to 80 beats per minute. Working with Spotify to research the benefits of different types of music, she found that listening to tunes in that beat range puts the brain into an ‘alpha state’. That’s when our brainwave activity slows and our minds are more open to imaginative thinking, clarity of memory and intuition. In other words, “eureka moments”. [10]
 

EW_Blog_CTA_MT_toolkit-ai@2x-(1).png

Power playlists


We’ve got the beat, but is there a particular genre of music that helps with productivity? A study found that instrumental music boosts this, while songs with lyrics can distract and reduce mental performance. Further research from Applied Acoustics found that performance takes a bigger dent with hard-to-hear lyrics. [11]

These findings chime with a study, which found that seven out of eight radiologists enjoy increased mood and concentration levels while listening to classical music. [12] Research shows that the sounds of nature lower stress levels even more than classical music. Good for unlocking divergent thinking. [13]

In one study, researchers piped the sound of flowing water and rainfall into an office. These natural sounds lifted employees’ moods and helped them focus. Research suggests this ambient noise blankets the distracting sound of people chatting, printers bleeping and keyboards clicking. [14]

Further studies reveal more surprising musical styles that help us get more done. They include:

  • Video game music. It’s designed to motivate players, blend into the background and reward you for reaching the next level. [15]
  • Dance music. In one study its beats upped proofreading speed by 20%. [16]
  • Pop music. Listening to pop reduced employee mistakes by 14% in one study .
music-banner-2-small.jpg


So, is there a common thread to these different genres? For scientists, it comes down to our individual tastes in music. When we listen to tunes we love, we get that allimportant dopamine hit.

What’s more, music’s ability to make us more productive is different for everyone. Studies show the number of brain areas activated by music varies from person to person, depending on our musical training and experiences. [18] 

Sound advice


Want to get the biggest mental boost possible from your music? Experts advise you to:

  • Create a playlist of your old favourites. With songs you love and have heard often, you get that dopamine hit without having to focus on new lyrics or beats. [19]
  • Lose the lyrics. Is there an instrumental version of your favourite tune? Picking out the meaning from words can distract us and dent productivity . [20]
  • Beat match. Apps like BeatPerMinuteOnline and SongBPM help you select tunes with that 50 to 80-beat sweet spot.

 

Got a tune that helps you get more done? Share it with us in the comments below.


Sources

[1] Mayo Oshin, ‘Why music affects your productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://qz.com/work/1573440/why-music-affects-your-productivity/ (accessed 9 October 2019).
[2] Skye Schooley, ‘Music and Its Effect on Productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://www.businessnewsdaily .com/11294-music-effect-on-productivity .html (accessed 9 October 2019).
[3] Sam Kemmis, ‘The Science of Music and Productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://zapier.com/blog/music-and-productivity/ (accessed 9 October 2019).
[4] Scott Mautz, ‘Want to Boost Your Productivity? Science Says Listen to Music W ith These 6 Rules In Mind’. Available at: https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/science-says-youget-astonishing-productivity-boosts-by-listening-to-music-just-follow-these-6-rules.html (accessed 9 October 2019).
[5] Chad Grills, ‘The Science Backed Ways Music Affects Your Brain and Productivity’ (2017). Available at: https://medium.com/the-mission/the-science-backed-ways-musicaffects-your-brain-and-productivity-e11145079305 (accessed 9 October 2019).
[6] Lancaster University, ‘How listening to music 'significantly impairs' creativity’ (2019). Available at: https://www.sciencedaily .com/releases/2019/02/190227081542.htm (accessed 9 October 2019).
[7] Markham Heid, ‘Does Listening to Music Stimulate Creative Thinking, or Stifle It?’ (2019). Available at: https://time.com/5626958/music-creative-thinking/ (accessed 9 October 2019).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Deep Patel. ‘These 6 Types of Music Are Known to Dramatically Improve Productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/325492 (accessed 9 October 2019).
[11] Mayo Oshin, ‘Why music affects your productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://qz.com/work/1573440/why-music-affects-your-productivity/ (accessed 9 October 2019).
[12] Melissa Chu, ‘5 Types of Music That Increase Your Productivity, According to Science’ (2018). Available at: https://medium.com/@melissachu/5-types-of-music-thatincrease-your-productivity-according-to-science-6214d5a5fe3f (accessed 9 October 2019).
[13] Sam Kemmis, ‘The Science of Music and Productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://zapier.com/blog/music-and-productivity/ (accessed 9 October 2019).
[14] Deep Patel. ‘These 6 Types of Music Are Known to Dramatically Improve Productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/325492 (accessed 9 October 2019).
[15] ‘Why You Should Listen to Video Game Soundtracks at Work’ (2016). Available at: https://desktime.com/blog/why-you-should-listen-to-video-game-soundtracks-atwork (accessed 9 October 2019).
[16] Emily Carter, ‘Whistle While You Work: Impact of Music on Productivity [Infographic]’. Available at: https://www.webfx.com/blog/general/music-productivity-infographic/ (accessed 9 October 2019).
[17] Ibid. 
[18] Chad Grills, ‘The Science Backed Ways Music Affects Your Brain and Productivity’ (2017). Available at: https://medium.com/the-mission/the-science-backed-ways-musicaffects-your-brain-and-productivity-e11145079305 (accessed 9 October 2019).
[19] Skye Schooley, ‘Music and Its Effect on Productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://www.businessnewsdaily .com/11294-music-effect-on-productivity .html (accessed 9 October 2019).
[20] Mayo Oshin, ‘Why music affects your productivity’ (2019). Available at: https://qz.com/work/1573440/why-music-affects-your-productivity/ (accessed 9 October 2019).

 

About the author

Alastair Roy

Alastair Roy

Content Editor
Alastair brings 15 years' experience writing, editing and prodding at content. During that time, he’s picked up copywriting, content marketing and video editing skills. Along with two shirts and about a stone in weight. At Emerald Works, he enjoys creating resources that help people better themselves.
 

You may also be interested in…

Five reasons to embrace the emoji revolution

They’re cute. They’re easy to use. They transcend language barriers. And most importantly, they’re lots of fun. To celebrate World Emoji Day, let’s look at their history – and how people and organizations are using emojis to communicate.

July 2020

Read More

Embracing change

In an environment where technological disruption, political upheaval and economic uncertainty have become the norm, change happens rapidly and unpredictably. Often, it happens in ways we can’t control.

July 2020

Read More

How to fit in exercise

How hard can it be to get more exercise? Draw up a fitness plan and stick to it. There you go, end of article! But we know it's not that easy in real life. If it was, we’d all be looking like Olympic athletes.

June 2020

Read More