People are divided on whether listening to music while working increases productivity, or just serves as a distraction. Unsurprisingly researchers have taken up the challenge, and the verdict is in. So what’s the answer? Well, it depends both on the type of work that you are doing, and the type of music that you are listening to.
If you are doing the type of work where you need to absorb and remember new information, generally speaking listening to music will serve as an unwelcome distraction. But if your work involves completing repetitive tasks or tasks that you are very familiar with and can do pretty much on autopilot, then listening to the right kind of music can actually improve your workflow. Fortunately, checking emails falls into this category of work for most of us!
Research has also shown that in a full and noisy workplace, music can help shut out distractions. The headphones almost create a bubble of space or a privacy ball around the person, improving focus.
While problem solving tasks may seem like they fall into the first category of work tasks, in fact, listening to music that you like, and that lifts your mood, can improve your problem solving skills. This is because when you are in a good mood, it is easier to take in the bigger picture, and therefore see more potential options. Listening to music that you don’t particularly like, such as generic music playing in the office space at large, doesn’t have the same positive impact on problem solving.
The distinction between listening to music that you like as opposed to just listening to music in general points to one of the reasons why music can support productivity.
Researchers have suggested that it isn’t the music itself that improves productivity, but rather your improved mood as a result of listening to music that you like that improves your work. If that is the case, then can other things that improve your mood have the same effect? Is that chocolate bar at your desk actually a productivity enhancer? Is your 15 minute coffee break gossiping in the kitchen actually a productivity booster rather than procrastination? It just might be.
While it is clear that music can improve a person’s ability to take on creative tasks as long as the music improves their mood, the type of music matters. Music with lyrics often proves to be overly distracting, as the ear tunes into the words it recognises, pulling your attention. Further, familiarity with the music being played improves focus, as you can gain the mood lifting benefit of the music without it drawing too much of your focus, because you are already familiar with the sound and what will come next.
The one area where it is clear that music, any music, does not support productivity is when you are trying to learn and retain new information. It seems that music demands too much of the brain’s attention, making it difficult to assimilate the new knowledge. Unfortunately, this means that when studying for exams, music is a hindrance rather than a help. Sorry students.