Everything you need to know about how music affects your productivity

Takeaway: You are most productive when you listen to music that’s familiar and minimal, and when you listen only during tasks that don’t require your complete attention. Listening to music while doing tasks that require deeper focus can compromise your productivity—regardless of the style of music.

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes, 38s.

The other day I had the chance to sit down with one of the most renowned musicians of our time. The reach of this man’s work is remarkable: his albums have collectively sold more than 100 million copies worldwide—more than Beyoncé, Bob Dylan, Prince, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, or Adele. His songs rake in millions of views on YouTube without batting an eye, and he has single-handedly crafted the soundtrack to countless childhoods. Many are transported to an entirely different world when they listen to his work.

But while you will likely recognize this man’s music—you may have even listened to it for hours like many people I know—you probably don’t know his name.

Let’s get back to Jerry in a second, though.

The Experiment

I write these words surrounded by the soft mumble of a half-full coffee shop.

It’s a mild February day here in Ottawa—uncharacteristically so. Three weeks after our snowiest month, it’s raining. Most of the snow has vanished, and while everyone walking past the window may be covered in rain, they aren’t bundled in their typical bulky, early-February winter attire.

If you asked me to design a soundtrack to this morning, I’d start with When We Were Young, by Adele. It’s slow and tranquil, and to me, a song a lot like this day.

Music has the ability to enhance our surroundings, and in my opinion, is best paired with something else: a game of cards, a dance party, a wedding, a drink after work, or a morning writing ritual on a rainy day like this. Some days I get more accomplished listening to instrumental music, but today I’ve written more than 1,500 words listening to songs like that one by Adele. Most days, I put on the music that feels right, and when I begin to focus on my work, the music fades into the background and I forget I’m listening to it all together.

This observation led me to ask an interesting question: how does music affect our productivity, or does it at all? Do certain songs, genres and tempos lead us to focus better? Does this depend on our personality—like whether we’re introverted or extroverted? Are some songs more conducive to working on certain types of tasks? Does it depend on how you’re feeling on a given day? What does the science say?

I intended to find out. And for fun, I spent a month mixing up what I listened to, not just to look at the science around music and productivity, but to explore the idea subjectively as well.

For one month, I listened to:

  • Instrumental music the first week;
  • Slow jams the second week;
  • Pop music the third;
  • Rock music the fourth;
  • And absolutely nothing the fifth.

I maintained a log each week of how much focus, energy, and motivation I had throughout the day.

This article is the result of that experiment.

The World’s Most Productive Soundtrack

Before I share the results of my experiment, let’s get back to Jerry.

Chances are you don’t recognize the name Jerry Martin—even though he has created what could be considered one of the most productive soundtracks of all time.

Jerry is famous for creating the music for video games such as The Sims and SimCity—games that together have sold well over 100 million copies worldwide. When looking to see how music influences our productivity, Jerry’s music is a great place to start. After all, his compositions are designed to be listened to for hours on end, as you focus on the game in front of you. Jerry’s music exists in the background as you work—instead of distracting you from the task at hand. It’s happy and upbeat, and keeps you playing. And there are no words to distract you.

As far as music goes, it’s pretty damn productive.

Jerry agrees that his music is composed to support your focus, rather than to be your focus. “When you put too much structure in music, you tend to focus on it. The best kind of music exists in the background—there’s really not much going on when you listen closely. The music is linear, just changing without you knowing it, and is supporting your work in the game.”

This idea is adapted for every game—the SimCity soundtrack has more tinkering sounds, for example—but each soundtrack is created with this minimalist style in mind.

Jerry also adapts this musical style in the commercials he soundtracks—adverts for companies like Apple, Toyota, EA, AT&T, and the NBA. In both cases, as he puts it, the music “is secondary compared to the visuals.”

What the Science Says

Research on music and productivity echoes this same idea: work first, music second.

Music shouldn’t be our main focus. We have only so much attention to give at any one moment, and that’s the reason why soundtracks like Jerry’s help us focus. Because Jerry’s linear, minimalist style music contains fewer elements than more complex compositions, it supports our work remarkably well. The more complex the music, the more our minds have to process. That affects our focus as we work.

When laying out this article, I thought this section on the science behind music and productivity would be the easiest to write—there are countless articles suggesting how music can enhance our productivity. Simply put, though, most of those articles are bullshit. I didn’t discover much once I started to pore over the studies on how music affects our workplace performance. No one to date has conducted a formal meta-analysis—a research paper that summarizes all the other research papers—on the topic of music and productivity. This makes it hard to get a read on the precise effect music has on our workplace performance—particularly when many of the studies that do exist are poorly-designed, and much of the well-designed research conflicts in opinion.

Five consistent ideas shine through the research that’s out there, though. Here they are, listed in order of importance:

1. Music (and background noise) consumes some of our attention. The less complicated the music, the better we’re able to focus.

Sound is similar to distance, time, or money: it’s relative. There will be times when listening to music is the most productive thing you can do—like when you’re working in a distracting office environment, or when a couple is having a loud conversation when you’re reading at a coffee shop. Then there are times when music is less productive—like when the office is relatively quiet, or the sum of the coffee shop conversations happening around you fade into a collective hum. (This is why apps like Coffitivity can bolster our ability to focus.)

Chemically speaking, listening to music makes you feel more productive—it stimulates your brain to release more dopamine1)—but overall you accomplish less as you listen, because the song you’re listening to occupies some of your limited attention.

As an illustration of this, imagine you’re driving and listening to a classical station. Traffic suddenly intensifies. Chances are you’ll turn down the music to better focus on the road, even though the music you’re listening to is simple and calming. It doesn’t matter how minimal the music is—it still consumes some of your attention.

2. Listening to music boosts your performance on habitual tasks.

While music hinders performance tasks that benefit from our complete attention, it aids performance in repetitive and monotonous habitual tasks. The reason for this, according to Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, is that with habitual tasks “it’s easy to get bored, so music can increase your arousal and help you pay more attention to your work.”2)

Plus, since habitual tasks don’t consume our complete attention, we have some mind space to spare. I found this to be true in my experiment; while I needed to turn down what I was listening to while writing and during more mentally taxing work, listening to music made repetitive tasks way more enjoyable.

3. Music can lift our mood considerably.

As mentioned, listening to music causes our brain to release more dopamine, a pleasure chemical that lifts our mood and makes us feel happier. While music consumes some of our attention, it may be worth the cost if you’re looking for a happiness and energy boost—especially if your work is largely habitual, or moderately-taxing.

This can make listening to music on breaks beneficial; because music enhances your mood, it will lead you to perform better once you get back to work. (Happier people are 31% more productive than everyone else.)

4. The more familiar you are with a song, the less of your attention it consumes.

During my experiment, I found it infinitely easier to focus while listening to slow jams and instrumental music—the sort of music I usually listen to. The research backs this up: we prefer music we’re familiar with3), and are less distracted by it4).

Familiar songs also boost our mood and brain activity more than unfamiliar tunes5. I found it immensely helpful to listen to songs I was familiar with on repeat—even more complex songs weren’t that distracting this way.

Music doesn’t affect our productivity directly—it affects our mood and energy, which in turn affects how productive we are. This is why I enjoy listening to instrumental and slow music throughout the day (and enjoyed listening to it during this experiment): it helps me feel more calm, deliberate, and focused.

5. Extroverts seem to perform better while listening to music, though it still compromises their performance.

According to research, the presence of background distractions—like a TV show, music, or conversation—almost always impairs the performance of introverts more than extroverts.6) That said, the effect is moderate but not extreme, and extroverts experience a performance hit as well. Music has been shown to be especially harmful to focus and productivity for introverts who are generally more anxious than average.7

My One Month of Music

When you ask someone to reflect on how productive they were in a day, they’ll often look for signals. These signals are commonly based on the amount of energy they had, or how busy they were. But these aren’t actual indicators of how much they got done.

You can’t blame them: it’s hard to measure productivity when you do knowledge work for a living. Figuring out how productive you are is more complicated when you can’t count exactly how many widgets you produced along an assembly line.

It’s for this reason that studies about music and productivity can be misleading. Someone who listened to music all day will almost always report being more productive than usual—not necessarily because they got more done, but because the music they listened to gave them more energy.

It was tough to avoid this trap in my experiment. However, I can easily report that I accomplished more during the slow and classical weeks—on these days, I wrote a greater number of words, conducted more interviews, and had a higher productivity level overall. But this speaks more to the power of minimal and familiar music than it does these specific styles. For me, the pop music week was the worst—the music was complex and unfamiliar, and if I hear Hit Me Baby One More Time . . . The rock music was okay—while the music was complex, it was also familiar.

The no music week was hell. Music has been integrated into my life for years—so much so that I hardly realize I’m listening to it during the day. This week, I felt like I was window shopping without any money—knowing that I couldn’t listen to music made me want it more, which distracted me from the task at hand (and that’s not counting the constant earworms I had this week.8). Most days I listen to music from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed—my day is incomplete without it. I shut it off only during my most demanding work.

Just as the research suggests, I was most productive when listening to familiar and minimal music, and when I listened only during tasks that didn’t require my full attention.

The bottom line is simple: Regardless of the context, if you must listen to music, listen to songs you’re familiar with, ones that are less complex. I enjoy listening to Jerry’s soundtracks while working—they block the distractions in my work environment, help boost my mood, and listening doesn’t require any active attention. I still turn them down when I want to really focus on my work, though.

If your work leaves you with attention to spare, listen to music you’re familiar with—especially if you’re an extrovert. Doing so will boost your mood, will make your work more fun, and your performance won’t take a big hit. It may, however, be worth shutting the music off if you’re doing mentally taxing work and your environment isn’t that distracting.

Your work will benefit from that extra attention.

 

Illustrations by Sinisa Sumina.


  1. Source: A neuroscientist explains why you should stop listening to music while you work (Business Insider 

  2. Source: A neuroscientist explains why you should stop listening to music while you work (Business Insider 

  3. Source: The Same Old Song: The Power of Familiarity In Music Choice (study 

  4. Source: Effect of Familiarity with Background Music on Performance of Simple and Difficult Reading Comprehension Tasks (study 

  5. Source: Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters 

  6. Source: Music While You Work: The Differential Distraction of Background Music on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extroverts (study 

  7. Source: The Effect of Music Listening on Work Performance 

  8. A complete list of the earworms that got stuck in my head one day: My Shot; Riser; Freedom; Solo (Frank Ocean); Yes I’m Changing; If This Bus Could Talk; My Shot (again); In Your Atmosphere; God Only Knows

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