While music is a universal language, we have different responses to the same song, whether it’s Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart or Metallica. We listen to music, too, when we’re happy and sad, motivated and discouraged, in love and heartbroken – indeed, we’re into music whatever our status in life maybe!
But does music also make us more productive at work? Scientists have conducted studies about the link between music and productivity, which have yielded interesting results that every music lover will likely be surprised to know.
Does Science Exist?
First off, we want to debunk the Mozart effect theory that assumed people, especially babies and children, became smarter after listening to Mozart’s classical music. In a paper published in Nature (1999), researchers concluded that the apparent improvement in cognitive performance was actually the result of an improved mood. In other words, listening to Mozart results in a happier mood that, in turn, leads to better performance.
In short, you will not become more intelligent even after listening to Mozart and other classical music for hours on end.
This isn’t to say that listening to Mozart doesn’t have positive effects either. But the increase in spatial-temporal reasoning, or the ability to transform and relate the images in your head in relation to space and time, is temporary; it lasts for about 15 minutes. By the way, spatial-temporal reasoning is crucial in the way we reason, create and think about ourselves and the world around us.
But we have experiences where we actually feel better and work better after listening to music. What then can we make of it? In this regard, scientists have discovered a proven link between music and productivity!
When you listen to your favorite music, you’re essentially activating your brain’s reward system. Your brain creates and releases more dopamine, a feel-good hormone that boosts the performance of your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for a wide range of functions. Your prefrontal cortex has control over your abilities to plan, organize and pay attention.
The bottom line: You’re more likely to pay more attention to your work and, thus, your productivity increases. You also feel happier – dopamine is also the same hormone released after the consumption of sugar, caffeine, and other euphoria-inducing substances – so you’re more motivated to work. You’re not Grumpy anymore but Dopey if you will.
Your brain takes note, too! Since your brain eventually associates listening to music with a happier mood, you will want to repeat the music-listening experience again and again to enjoy a similar feeling.
So, in answer to the previous question, “Yes, the science does exist but it isn’t the Mozart effect.”
Does Any Kind of Music Work?
No, because there are different types of work that require different types of music. There’s also the matter of personal preference – your taste in music will largely influence your choice in brain-boosting music.
Scientists, nonetheless, have come to the following conclusions. First, repetitive tasks require different concentration levels than creative tasks so the best type of music for each type of task will be different.
Listening to complex music won’t be of little to no help – indeed, it may even become a distraction – when you’re engaged in creative work where a high degree of concentration is a must for quality work. So, if you’re working on a complex problem where thinking outside of the box is crucial, your best bet is a piece of relaxing, down-tempo music. But if you’re into a repetitive task, such as data encoding, where falling asleep or becoming bored is a possibility, you may want to listen to upbeat music with a complex structure.
Let’s take, for example, Frank Zappa’s Muffin Man, which has a complex structure, and John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane with its simple three-chord structure. Between the two, the former can be more distracting than the latter when you’re listening to it at work.
Second, choose music that actually makes you feel good about yourself, perhaps about the work you’re doing at the moment. Keep in mind that you want to improve your mood with uplifting music, so funeral dirges may not be the best choice.
You want music that stimulates your brain to release dopamine, just as if you’ve consumed more than your fair share of sugar-laden food or drink (i.e., sugar rush). You may listen, for example, to The Flight of the Bumblebee instead of A Song for Anna because it’s just such a happy tune.
Third, choose instrumentals, if possible. The lyrics may appeal to your inner self but when these interrupt your train of thought, you may be unable to finish your work on time and with the right quality. You may also focus on the message, yet another distraction that you can’t afford when you’re under pressure to meet a deadline.
Tip: If the music makes you distracted or you keep thinking about it, you may want to switch to ambient nature sounds. This way, you won’t be humming to the melody or singing the lyrics, both of which will decrease your concentration and affect the quality and speed of your work.
Fourth, the listener should be able to control the music for him or her to get the most benefit from it, productivity-wise. If you have little to no control over the music, you’re likely to be distracted by it than if you actually controlled it (i.e., playlist) including its volume.
But don’t be limited to music with musical instruments either! You can also choose non-musical backgrounds, such as white noise and ambient nature sounds, in boosting your productivity at work. Other examples are instrumental music, baroque music, sounds of nature, ambient noise, and some pop music.
There are numerous apps that provide nature sounds, from ocean waves to gentle chirping of birds, designed to improve the auditory environment. Many people apparently work better and faster when there’s background noise instead of total silence – go into a Starbucks shop, for example, and you will see many people typing away on their laptops, apparently happy to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle around them.
Do you have to listen to music while you’re working to enjoy its benefits? No, not exactly! You can listen to music before plunging into work just to condition yourself and you can take music breaks to give your brain and body time to regroup. And, when at work, wear a headphones and continue your listening; especially in an open office space – this will cancel out the background music.