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The Power of Listening to Music at Work

Did you know that a large body of research suggests that listening to music at work can improve your efficiency, creativity and happiness?

However, there are nuances to these benefits. For example, studies seem to agree that listening to music at work with lyrics  is distracting for most people. Therefore, it’s the frequent recommendation of many of these studies that we avoid listening to music with lyrics when working on tasks that require intense focus or the learning of new information.

In contrast, listening to music with lyrics may actually help people working on repetitive or mundane tasks, perhaps because the distracting nature of lyrical music can provide a kind of relief from the monotony of the task at hand.

For a greater understanding of how music affects work, here are just a few of the many studies conducted on workplace productivity and music in recent years:

In 1972, a study published in Applied Ergonomics suggested that people doing repetitive tasks worked more efficiently when background music was played.

In 1994, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that a surgeon’s accuracy and efficiency improved when they worked with music playing. Music selected by the participants had the best results and, even when working with music selected by researchers, the surgeons performed better than those who worked with no music at all.

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A 1999 study in the journal of Neuroscience and behavioral physiology showed that playing classical or rock music allowed study participants to identify numbers more quickly and accurately.

In 2005, research from the journal of Psychology of Music showed that software developers experienced more positive moods, better quality of work and improved efficiency when listening to music at work . The study also notes a learning curve for participants using music to alter their moods.

These examples are merely a snapshot of the research that has been conducted on music’s affects on employees, but we can already start to see the benefits music has on work.

Science Shows Some Ambient Music Can Boost Your Productivity

To some extent, you can make the case that music is a form of ambient noise.

Research suggests that ambient noise, or ambient music as we may prefer to think about it here, could be the best kind of music for work productivity.

A 2006 study from the journal of Ergonomics found continuous noise to be the least annoying background noise, while distinguishable speech was “the most disturbing, most disadvantageous and least pleasant environment” for participants. The study also included a “masked speech” variable, which proved to be the most effective means of arousing participants’ mental states, while (somewhat surprisingly) continuous noise was the least effective.

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In 2012, The Journal of Consumer Research published a study investigating the effects of ambient noise on creativity. The study suggested that creative processes improved when participants listened to ambient noise at a moderate volume — about 70 decibels, approximately the volume of a vacuum cleaner. The study also found that creativity suffered in the presence of high-volume ambient noise — about 85 decibels, slightly louder than a garbage disposal.

Additionally, research in 2015 from the The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that using ambient natural sounds like a flowing stream was an effective way to improve employees’ productivity and moods in the workplace.

Considering those studies above, it’s probable that ambient music has the potential to help improve your mood and productivity. However, for music to really improve your productivity at work, you’ll probably need to alternate between periods of no music and periods of different kinds of music.

As we mentioned previously, when learning new information, music without lyrics is preferable to lyrical music. However, if we complete this task at work and need to switch to a more repetitive, well-known task, we may benefit emotionally and productively from listening to music with lyrics. And, depending on the complexity of the task, we’ll likely encounter instances throughout the day when we need to ditch our headphones altogether and simply focus on what’s in front of us.

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That said, finding the right kind of music can be challenging at times. This is part of the learning curve mentioned in the Psychology of Music research above. Clicking around to find the right artist can certainly detract from workplace productivity but, once you know what works for you, music can become a tool for near-instant concentration.

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