When Should You Listen to Music at Work?

Everything You Need to Know about Music and Productivity

When Should You Listen to Music at WorkLots of workers rely on music to get through the workday. Whether they’re headbanging to Metallica, grooving along to Arcade Fire, or report writing to the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, these employees insist that listening to music can increase their productivity. How much truth is there to this claim? Are employees simply using their headphones to escape boredom, or are music and productivity really linked?

Research seems to indicate that listening to music in the workplace has a positive effect on employee productivity because it alleviates boredom—more specifically, music makes people more productive because it makes them happier. Let’s look at some of the research on music and productivity to see how you can best use music to get through your workday.

Why Should You Listen to Music at Work?

Multiple research studies indicate that listening to music positively affects productivity in the workplace. A 2005 study by Teresa Lesiuk showed that computer programmers who listened to music produced better work in a shorter period of time than their coworkers who did not listen to music. The music helped the programmers pace themselves while completing tasks.

This positive effect of music on employee productivity is great news for music-loving workers everywhere. Still, some employers may have their doubts. An enjoyable activity that magically makes employees more productive? For some employers, this seems a bit too good to be true. So, what is it that creates this miraculous link between music and productivity?

A Happy Worker is a Productive Worker

No, there isn’t a “productivity” section of your brain that kicks into high gear when you’re exposed to music. There also isn’t a certain song or music genre that will have you working at five times your normal speed. The principle behind music and productivity is a little less pseudoscientific and a whole lot simpler than this. The simple truth is that music improves employee productivity because music makes people happy.

The field of research pertaining to music and neuroscience is vast and complicated, but when it comes to music and emotion, one central idea is almost universally accepted: music elicits an emotional response in the listener. Even our negative emotions can be experienced in a positive way using music, according to Apter (2001), who states that even those who use music to experience unpleasant emotions do so with the underlying intention of “enjoying” their difficult emotions (as cited in Lesiuk, 2005). Just like watching sad movies can help us process our feelings when we’re feeling down, listening to music that makes us sad can actually work to make us happy in the long run. (Ah, the magic of art!)

Not surprisingly, several studies have found that music improves our moods. People perform higher on measures of emotions after listening to music. During Lesiuk’s 2005 study, for instance, the programmers’ positive moods increased during the weeks of the study when they listened to music, but decreased during the week of the study when the music was discontinued. Additionally, because music is also known to reduce anxiety, it may actually be able to help employees relax, focus, and complete stressful tasks in shorter amounts of time.

Music boosts happiness, which boosts productivity

Can an improved mood really have that big of an impact on employee productivity? Recent research suggests that it can. Of course, music isn’t the be-all and end-all of workplace happiness; bigger, more encompassing issues like personal fulfillment, work–life balance, and a sense of accomplishment also contribute greatly to happiness in the workplace. Still, even the relatively small mood improvements that occur when people listen to music can increase workplace productivity.

Remember: Everyone Is Different

So, music has a positive effect on mood, and elevated mood has a positive effect on employee productivity. Does this mean you should exchange full-time silence for full-time music? Not necessarily. For one thing, according to Furnham and Strbac (2002), certain tasks require more concentration than others; depending on the task you’re working on, music may be too distracting (especially if you’re not used to listening at work). Individual differences should also be taken into account when deciding how often you should listen to music at work, if at all.

Researchers have looked at differences between introverts and extroverts in terms of music’s effects on mood and productivity. The results have not been entirely conclusive, but some of the studies lean toward the assertion that introverts have a harder time listening to music and working than extroverts. (This may have less to do with the music and more to do with the complexity of the task.) Doyle and Furhnam (2012) found that “creative” individuals are less likely to be distracted by music than “non-creative” individuals, but their study does not address whether introverts or extroverts are more likely to be categorized as “creative.” Nor does it address how this might conflict with the results of other studies on the topic.

Correlation versus causationAs Lesiuk (2005) points out, the correlation between music and mood is still somewhat fuzzy. Though her study gave some pretty solid support for music being the cause of improved mood, other research hasn’t been so straightforward. Lots of studies have found that people with more positive outlooks tend to listen to more music at work; however, if you’ve ever taken a social studies or science course, you know that this assertion falls into the dangerous “correlation versus causation” predicament. In this case, it’s possible that the music does not cause positive mood, but that people who are generally happy to begin with tend to listen to music more than those who are not.

As you can see, there is still much to learn about music and productivity. If there is one lesson to be taken from all these different research studies and perspectives, it is this: do what is best for you. One thing that researchers seem to agree on is that, for individuals who do enjoy music while working, the type, duration, and genre of music don’t seem to matter. Individual music preferences are the most important indicators for music’s effect on productivity (Lesiuk, 2005). It doesn’t matter whether you want to listen to classical music, rock, rap, or indie pop—as long as you’re listening to music you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to succeed. You should also keep in mind that familiar music tends to be less distracting than music you’ve never heard before. You may even decide that any music at all is too distracting when you’re at work, and that’s fine too. Everyone is different; just focus on finding what works best for you.

Conclusion

Employee satisfaction is key to employee productivity—and what makes people happier than music? The next time you’re debating the use of headphones in your workplace, whether as an employee or as an employer, take this research into consideration. Happier employees mean better quality work for the company, and more of it—and that, my friends, is what we call music to everybody’s ears.

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