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Should you listen to music while working & studying

By Michael Crump | 11 September 2017

Do you like to listen to music while you work? If so, what genre of music? Your answers to these questions depend on how your brain works and what work you do. There have been many scientific studies researching this very topic, but just what to make of them all and deriving some actionable advice isn’t necessarily easy. This article will give you a bit of a breakdown of what the science tells us (we think) and provide some tips for you about how you can alter your aural atmosphere to boost your productivity.

Keep it mellow

woman relaxing while listening to music

First thing’s first. If you’re listening to Iggy Azalea while reading this, stop. In fact, if you’re listening to any kind of pop music currently, you should stop. If you’re listening to any music at all right now, it had better be boring. Ok, not boring. The word that comes up in most of these studies is “unobtrusive”. Essentially, to comprehend and remember what you’re reading with maximum absorption, you should be listening to ambient music that generates a pleasant atmosphere. Background music, essentially.

And they key here appears to be instrumental background music. Lyrics have been shown to divert people’s attention. And it makes sense, you can’t read and listen to somebody talk to you simultaneously, and the same goes for lyrical music. This much is fairly intuitive. Or, at least, this is something you may have learned long ago. Probably when you studied your high school math textbook while listening to Rage Against the Machine at an unnecessarily high volume. And then you wondered why you got a 58 on the exam.

Well, now you know better. And the science reflects this. If you must listen to music (some people do as they can find absolute silence disquieting) then you have a few proven varieties from which to choose while reading and studying. You don’t have to limit yourself to just the Mega Stars of Elevator Music or that Chuck Mangione compilation (all due respect to the master of the flugelhorn). It’s probably no surprise that classical music has been repeatedly shown to be helpful in these situations. One study demonstrated that Baroque might be the best genre of classical, what’s more important is that it’s music that you like, is pleasant (played in a major scale), and is not too fast or jarring.

Certain types of jazz would be suitable as well. If you prefer more modern music, there are sorts of electronic music that can provide a pleasant atmosphere without providing too much distraction. A subgenre of electronica known as ambient is as helpful as the name suggests. There’s also one other category that you might not think of: video game music. And it makes total sense when you think about it. A soundtrack composed specifically for a game that requires the player to learn the game as you play it and strategise accordingly should also be appropriate for any other type of learning or intellectual task. Keep in mind of course that we’re talking about tactic and strategy-based games here (such as the Sim City or Civilization franchise), going out and listening to a heavy metal or dubstep soundtrack to a kill-all-the-alien-robots-invading-Earth is probably not going to help you ace your LSATS.

Music for monotony

bearded man listening to music outside

All of that advice is helpful if you’re doing a job that requires a certain level of mental energy. What some studies describe as tasks that are mentally “immersive”. But not all of us have jobs that oblige us to perform such tasks all the time. Unfortunately, many of us have mundane and repetitive tasks we must do as part of our professions. Do the rules change for these less than mesmerizing duties? Well, funny, you should ask, because they do! The studies are not as clear in this area because there is a great deal of variation. What seems to be most crucial here is your mood.

Dull, repetitive tasks are rarely enjoyable for most people, so to get through them faster, you should listen to music you like. Regardless of genre, subjects demonstrated a greater ability to perform monotonous tasks while listening to music they said they liked, so, if you have a slew of emails you have to send out saying your boss will be out of the office next week, or if you have to fill out the type of spreadsheet you’ve filled out six-hundred-and-twelve times before, then go ahead and put on your favourite album.

Well, maybe not your favourite album. There’s some evidence to suggest that if you get too into your music, this might well distract you and lessen your productivity. The key here might again be lyrics. Not so much because non-instrumental music will always distract from any task, but more because if you’re listening to a song you like so much that you just can’t help but sing along, that’s bad. Apart from having to sheepishly apologise after you realise that they whole office is staring at you, bewildered by your off-key caterwauling of “MMMbop”, the very act of singing appears to be a significant distraction. Again, we go back to the conversation metaphor.

Even if it’s the same type of email you’ve sent out countless times before, you would still have difficulty writing it while talking to somebody else. The same goes for singing. The exception here might be monotonous physical tasks. If you’re performing a task that requires no communication (written or spoken) and only physical action, then you can probably go ahead and sing your little heart out. However, if you’re operating heavy machinery maybe it’s still best to focus and save those pipes for karaoke.

Don’t lose focus

man listening to music while studying

The key factor in all of this is focus. It is accepted in neuroscience and psychology that when we lose focus, we are less happy. And when we are less happy, we are less productive. There are of course exceptions, but usually when we let our minds wander or daydream, we do so because we are unhappy and bored with whatever is supposed to be occupying our attention. Music can be effective in helping us to retain our focus. A good rule of thumb to follow here is that the more mentally engrossing a task; the more mental acuity a job requires, the less distracting the music should be.

Of course, if you have a job that requires a great deal of creativity, sometimes it’s just best to listen whatever can inspire you and get your imaginative juices flowing. But after you’re done writing and it’s time to edit your article, switch off the artful and inspiring “musique concrete” sound collages to which you were listening (ok, turn off the New Kids on the Block album to which you were actually listening), and put on some Massive Attack or a Bach concerto. Still can’t figure out what to put on your productivity playlist? Well, lucky for you, there’s an app for that. You can use the knowledge you now know to try to get the best playlist out of streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora.

Or you can turn on Songza and play a “Music for Relaxing” playlist, but there’s actually an app that’s specifically catered to playing music meant to boost concentration. The app is called focus@will and it was designed with the intention of boosting and sustaining focus longer than the supposed average maximum of 20 minutes. Focus@will is based on neuroscience and claims to be able to boost your attention span to 100 minutes and can help retention rates as well.

If you’re having trouble finding the right mix of genres on your playlist or are absolutely serious about maximizing your productivity and attention span, then focus@will might be worth trying out. If you’d like to learn about other apps that could boost your productivity, click here.

What works for you?

That’s what the research and the literature have to say. But remember, not all the research is conclusive. Furthermore, everybody’s different, and there’s no definite way to predict how one given individual will react to different music in different circumstances. So, what works for you? Do you have a go to playlist? Is there an app or streaming service you like to use? Let us know.

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