Music is a universal language that can speak to people on different levels. You can use music to get pumped up for a sporting game or relax on spa day, but what can music do for your productivity? Here’s what the experts have to say.
Daniel Barolsky, a professor of music at Beloit College, told us that music can be helpful or detrimental to productivity depending on the user’s personality, what they’re listening to, and what they genuinely enjoy.
“Available evidence indicates that music favored by the listener can temporarily improve arousal or mood as well as elevate cognitive performance,” Barolsky said.
Will Tottle, mental health expert and author of the article series Mind-Boosting Benefits, agrees that music’s effects vary by person, but he believes the differences are more about individual tendencies than musical preference.
“For many, music can help someone focus, get more done, and feel motivated,” Tottle said. “However, there are some people who find music very distracting, and their focus drops drastically when listening to music and trying to complete a task.”
Workplace distractions proven to hinder productivity include social media, internet browsing, meetings and email.
Here’s some scientific background – and some not-so-scientific background – behind the connection between music and the brain.
For years, there was a theory called the Mozart effect, which assumed that people became smarter after listening to classical music by Mozart. According to an article in Tottle’s series, this has been proven false. Listening to classical music can boost your spatial-temporal reasoning, but only temporarily.
Spatial-temporal reasoning is the transformation and relation of mental images in space and time. For example, you would use this reasoning if you were playing chess and needed to think ahead several moves. It is crucial to how we think, reason and create. Tottle said the Mozart study only proved an increase in spatial-temporal reasoning for about 15 minutes.
Although Mozart may not make you permanently smarter, this study may be something to keep in mind if you are trying to boost productivity over a short period while performing a duty that requires spatial-temporal reasoning. [Related article: 20 Easy Ways to Boost Your Productivity]
Barolsky also referenced previous scientific studies, remarking that the historic theory behind Western art music as a superior genre has been debunked.
“Earlier studies have sought to celebrate the effects of some music, such as Western art music, over other non-Western and more popular music,” he said. “However, it was proven that studies with focuses on this type of music came with bias that skewed the results and have been disproven.”
If the previous scientific studies were disproven, what scientific studies are accurate? Merriam Saunders, psychotherapist and adjunct assistant professor in the counseling psychology department of Dominican University, clarified the actual science behind music’s effect on the brain.
“Music can have a dopaminergic effect on the brain, meaning it creates dopamine,” Saunders said. “Dopamine is what stimulates the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of the brain responsible for planning, organizing, inhibition control and attention.”
Saunders explained that if your brain produced more dopamine, you’d have a more effective prefrontal cortex that helped you become more productive. However, you’d need to listen to music you enjoy to stimulate dopamine production.
As the experts above note, scientific studies haven’t reached a universal conclusion about the relationship between music and productivity. In fact, no studies on this topic have been published at all in the 2020s. However, a handful of studies spanning a decades-long range support the experts’ claims.
Science is inconclusive on how music affects productivity. However, there’s anecdotal evidence that music makes people more productive – at least, people think they’re more productive with music.
The experts we spoke to had slightly different opinions about which musical genre best increases productivity. Barolsky and Saunders believe the best genre for productivity depends on the type of music an individual enjoys, because that genre is more likely to increase dopamine levels and, in turn, productivity.
However, Saunders suggests that the best approach to choosing music is to create a playlist of songs you really enjoy but have heard so often that you don’t need to focus on the lyrics or beat. Playing this type of music creates background noise that increases dopamine without distracting you.
While all the experts agree that the most efficient music type varies by person, Tottle thinks two specific genres are the best overall for productivity: classical music and the sounds of nature.
“The first [reason] is that there are no words, and this lowers the potential for distraction,” he said. “Secondly, these genres are actually able to boost your mood, increasing feelings of joy and contentedness so that you feel more motivated and able to work.”
Other genres Tuttle believes can boost productivity and motivation include funk music and video game and movie soundtracks.
The experts agree that a music genre that negatively impacts productivity is also primarily based on preference. If an individual dislikes a musical genre, listening to that music will result in distraction and less productivity.
Saunders and Tottle both indicated that there’s a fine line between music being energizing and too engaging. Lyrics and tempo are both factors. “If a person needed to concentrate but [they were] listening to the lyrics, it would negatively impact the brain’s ability to get the task done,” said Saunders.
In the same tune, Tottle said music with lyrics or a really fast tempo could distract workers and lead to lower productivity.
“Similarly, if the tempo is too low, it can leave you feeling drowsy and lead to a lack of motivation,” he said. [Related article: Distracted Workers Are Costing You Money]
The experts agreed that music affects various tasks differently. Saunders said some tasks are positively impacted as long as they are controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This includes planning, organizing, paying attention, controlling impulses and working memory – the ability to hold recently learned information at the ready.
Exercise is positively impacted by the presence of upbeat music, according to Tottle. The tempo can motivate you to keep moving to the beat, and it can even act as a positive distraction.
Overall, the presence of music does positively impact productivity, but it depends on various factors:
This may seem like a complex combination of factors, but once you create the right playlist to fit your preferences, you might notice a shift in your productivity and efficiency.
Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.