Listening to the right kind of music at the right time can make you happier, smarter and more productive.
A friend of mine told me once, after visiting the gym, that hearing a particular techno/dance song in class enabled him to lift around 40% more weight than he otherwise could.
Many people listen to carefully selected playlists that help them run faster and with less effort.
It’s also common for public speakers to listen to music before they get on stage, because this helps them get into the right state for engaging the audience and presenting most effectively.
Music can also sway our emotions in an instant. Just look at movies, commercials or even reality shows. The chosen soundtracks – even the ridiculous ‘tension music’ played while an unfortunate cooking show contestant serves a slightly overcooked piece of chicken to the judges – are essential parts of the story-telling.
I’m sure you know exactly what to listen to when you want to cheer up, let off steam, connect with a loved one, or be carried back into the past.
But have you ever wondered how listening to the right sort of music can make you more productive and successful in business?
Many professionals already draw on the power of music to perform better. Some software developers work more efficiently, and produce better quality work, when listening to the right tunes. And surgeons have been seen to perform operations more accurately when listening to well-selected music.
The spell of music
Music affects how you feel, how you think, and what you do. And I’m not only talking about those moments when you simply can’t stop yourself dancing.
The right types of music can:
- Energise and motivate you to get things done.
- Help you recall information from memory.
- Make boring, repetitive tasks more interesting.
- Help you complete certain tasks faster and more accurately.
- Make you feel happier, more confident and more optimistic – and as you’re probably aware, positive emotions can have an enormous benefit on essentially all important aspects of work.
- Help you get in touch with the part of yourself you want to be in the moment – whether a wise man, an adventurer, a fighter, or a productivity queen or king.
- Make it easier for you to focus on what you’re doing and to stay in the zone, taming your monkey brain.
- Mask or block out distracting noises and sounds around you, further helping with concentration.
- Fire up your creativity. (An architecture professor I knew often listened to Mozart when designing buildings, and his designs were in fact a little bit Mozart-like.)
- Enable you to get into other people’s shoes and understand their feelings and experiences.
- Help you relieve stress, switch off and relax.
What to look for
What types of music work well in different situations of course depends on the individual. But science can give you some direction, in case you’re open to experimenting with your playlists.
According to research, the genre, the lyrics, the tempo, the volume and the key / mood of the music, as well as your familiarity with the tunes, all have some impact on how you perform at work.
Baroque music is found to be excellent for improving productivity and focus. Electronic tracks can also help you stay present and switched on, and because of their repetitive nature they are usually unobtrusive. Interestingly, video game music is highly recommended by experts. Just think about it – game music is specifically composed to assist players perform often complex and challenging tasks without distracting them. (For example, the SimCity soundtrack is highly popular for aiding concentration.)
Music with lyrics can help you immerse yourself in repetitive, mundane tasks, but can be distracting when your work requires much of your attention and brain power. You’ll probably find that instrumental music without lyrics works better for complex tasks. Listening to music with lyrics can also make it difficult to read or write, because the language centre of your brain is trying to run two processes simultaneously. (Mixing languages is the worst. I find that listening to music in my mother tongue (Hungarian), while trying to read or write in English leads to the ultimate brain fry.)
Can you imagine that music with the right tempo may increase your intelligence? One study found that students who listened to upbeat music performed better on IQ tests compared to those who listened to slow music. On the other hand, music with around 60 beats per minute could help you significantly reduce stress.
Listening to music at medium volume (i.e. roughly as loud as the sound of a vacuum cleaner) is probably best to enhance your creativity. High volume music may help open up your mind to abstract thinking, but is likely to decrease your ability to process information.
5. Key / Mood
Studies show that background music written in a major key better supports productivity than music written in a minor key. This could be explained by the fact that music in a major key tends to sound more cheerful. Either way, if the music you’re listening to lifts your mood and makes you feel empowered, you can’t really go wrong.
Playing familiar tunes in the background is probably a better choice when you need to concentrate intensely, because music that’s new to you could more easily distract you or hijack your attention. However, it’s good to be careful when you’re selecting music that you know well and mean a lot to you. Tunes from your past could bring up all sorts of memories – inspiring thoughts and feelings, or sometimes disempowering ones.
Choose what works for you and your team
I encourage you to experiment with different types of music and explore what works for you and your team. You’ll likely notice that you prefer different types of tunes for different activities.
Some music might ground you and help you focus on detail-oriented, analytical tasks, while other types could open up your imagination and entice you to think expansively.
Some music might give you the courage to take risks, as well as a sense of urgency (which can be especially handy if you’re a seasoned procrastinator). Others could prompt you to slow down a little and be cautious – a great state to be in when checking for errors and making certain critical decisions.
The right music could also enhance teamwork, energising members and getting everyone on the same wavelength. It could help establish a warm and friendly atmosphere and invite everyone – even the most quiet members – to open up and speak their minds.
Chances are that some of your reactions will defy science and logic. For example, alternative rock often brings me into a dreamy state in which I produce my most creative designs. So don’t question yourself; just pick whatever puts you in the right headspace and stimulates you to perform better.
But whichever kind of music you choose, always remember your priorities. Music should not distract you – nor anyone else around you – from doing your best work. If you can’t agree on what to play on the sound system, or whether to have any music at all, it’s best to keep the workspace quiet and perhaps to put on your headphones. (I have many vivid memories of working in offices where the music almost never stopped, and which was painful to listen to. I couldn’t wait to escape.)
Music, ambient sounds, or silence
Sometimes you might find that silence is your best friend – especially when you need a clear headspace or your work requires 100% of your attention. For example, like most people, you most likely find it easier to learn something new or to get your head around complex information in a quiet space. (It might still be a good idea to keep the headphones on, which can help block out distractions even when no music is playing.)
In many modern workplaces white noise or pink noise is played in the speakers to mask distracting noises, especially intelligible speech. These ambient sounds support privacy and help people focus on cognitively demanding tasks.
Playing nature sounds – such as streams bubbling, birds chirping, trees rustling in the wind – is another popular option. Nature sounds are also shown to enhance brain function and concentration, and to improve mood and wellbeing.
I find that my habits around music have an actual rhythm. I prefer to work in silence for a few hours in the morning, then turn on the tunes in the afternoon, and then enjoy some more silence again later.
However, we are all different. Perhaps you want to work in a quiet space all the time. Or like Bronwyn, my author buddy and friend, you simply can’t stand working in a silent room.
Either way, you have the choice to combine your love for music (or silence) with the joy of productive and rewarding work. I believe, this is an amazing choice to have!