How often do you find yourself, plugging into your headphones and opening iTunes, Tidal, Spotify or your favorite music streaming service at work and feeling guilty about it?
Music more or less influences your productivity. It makes you feel like you can work longer, no matter how repetitive the task is. It often makes the tedious work a breeze to sail through. Some of us may feel like we need our favorite powerful rap or hip-hop pick-me-up before a mid-afternoon meeting or coding session. Others may need that acoustic indie mix to get them in the zone, to prep the day for a job that we find tedious. Sometimes, you need a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out a noisy office.
But what about when you’re hard-pressed to write up that report when you are almost ready to call it a day? Will music give you a fresh burst of energy or distract you? When you get down to the numbers and the science, does music do the things that we think it does for the productivity? Does it make us tap into our ‘flow’ or is it distracting?
It turns out that some of the time our instincts are right. Sometimes, music makes the work more efficient. Quite often, music makes you feel more productive than you are. At such times, it is most recommended in the workspace.
Music is Great for Making Repetitive Tasks Enjoyable
Every business has repetitive tasks that are just unavoidable. Whether it’s work on a dreary development task or a budget report, it has to proceed. Many studies have found that music is an excellent aid to productivity when doing repetitive tasks. A lot of these studies have been about people working in a manual assembly, where putting together parts or examining parts all day is dull. Doing the same thing, again and again, lets you lose your focus. After a while, workers are less efficient than when they started out.
Background music can inject spirit and productivity in such a scenario of short cycle repetitive tasks. Of course, it can apply to any industry other than just IT. Just like tea and coffee, music can act as a stimulant that calms anxious feelings. However, the longer the music plays, the less efficient it will be. Music is good in short measure. It also matters what kind of music you play. Energetic music is good. At one time, music by Mozart, in particular, was performed to cows so they could produce more milk, and parents were playing it to babies with a hope that the musical genius’ intelligence would rub off on their infants. There is evidence to suggest that the Mozart Effect works in boosting productivity, but it is not just restricted to Mozart music.
Does the Mozart Effect Work?
The Mozart Effect was something that became a fad in the ‘90s. But studies in 2010 found that whether you listened to Mozart, Schubert or pop music, the effect was the same. Music was found to produce cognitive arousal, and this made the subjects of the experiments, children as well as adults, do better on some kinds of mental tests that involved spatial-temporal reasoning. If you enjoyed the music that you were listening to, your performance was likely to be better on these tests. That suggested that enjoying the music was the key to productivity. Just 10 minutes of listening to music were found to improve the brain’s spatial activity. The Spatial operation involves thinking about objects in three dimensions. Any task that requires spatial reasoning, therefore, will be improved by short bursts of music rather than sitting in silence before commencing the job.
An interesting point to be noted here is that some studies have also had participants listen to a short story instead of music, before carrying out spatial reasoning tasks. The effect of the short story was very similar to the impact of the music in engaging spatial reasoning skills. It, however, occurred as long as the subject paid full attention to the story.
What Kind of Music Improves Productivity?
It can be beneficial to look at the kind of music that is good for productivity. Can a slow adagio work just as well as a sophisticated and energetic piece like Mozart’s sonata for two pianos (K448) do? Let us look at the scientific evidence. In 2006, a British study conducted with eight thousand children involved playing either Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major or pop songs by Blur and Mark Morrison. The kids responded best to the pop songs. It suggests preference also matters.
Slower music tends to relax us, and there’s a reason why stores play smoother music. It slows us down and keeps us in the shop for longer, persuading us to buy something. If you want to maximize your break at work and listen to music to energize you faster, higher tempo music is your best friend. The reason why Mozart’s music was so famous for boosting brain power at one time is that it is a complex music that helps to recharge the mind.
Can Music Help You Achieve ‘Flow’?
Another interesting question could be whether music helps to achieve flow. The niche field of neuro-musicology studies explores how music affects the nervous system. Researchers in the area have found that music enters our ears and engages various parts of our brain. Many programs swear by music while they code, claiming that it helps them achieve ‘flow’ much quicker. ‘Flow’ is the mental state of absolute focus and undivided attention in your work, a psychological concept popularized by Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For many people, music helps to block out distractions, noises of other people talking in their meeting, telephones ringing, people coughing, and other little annoying office noises. They can slide into the pattern of the day’s work much quicker with a headphone on their ears. If you work in an IT office, you’ll be particularly grateful for headphones.
But is there any science that supports music’s ability to help us achieve ‘flow’? This psychological state of high productivity is difficult to achieve as it is, and when it is achieved, it comes in short bursts. Most of the proponents of music for ‘flow’ say that they listen to instrumental music, which helps them engage better when they are carrying out repetitive tasks, like the tasks of a programmer. Those who feel that music hampers concentration are usually talking about ‘lyric’ music, where the words can be distracting. Here, the choice appears to be subjective.
The conclusion that we can draw from the studies on music at the office as well as personal experiences of professionals, who love their music is that music can make some tasks productive. It is fantastic for repetitive tasks. It can be a mood-lifter on days when you don’t think you can stay late and get through that tedious chore which can no longer be postponed. Athletes use music to get their adrenaline pumping before a competition and to relieve nervousness and anxiety. Music can help ease fatigue when you’re at the end of your tether but have to get a job done. Look online, and you’ll find Spotify lists for different times of the day at work – before a meeting, during the slow part of the afternoon, and during the ride back home. Find the playlist that works for you and use it in small doses to make your workday more productive.