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Music and Its Effect on Productivity

Music and Its Effect on Productivity
Credit: Syda Productions / Shutterstock

Music is a universal language that can speak to people on different levels. It can be used to pump you up for a sports game or relax you at a day spa, but what does it do for your productivity?

Daniel Barolsky, an associate professor of music at Beloit College, said it can be both useful and detrimental, depending on the user's personality, what they're listening to and what they really enjoy.

"Available evidence indicates that music favored by the listener can temporarily improve arousal or mood as well as elevate cognitive performance," Barolsky told Business News Daily.

Will Tottle, mental health expert and author of the article series Mind Boosting Benefits, agrees that the effect varies by person, but he believes the focus on how music impacts productivity should be more on the individual tendencies than on the musical preference. 

"For many, music can help someone focus, get more done and feel motivated," said Tottle. "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."

For years, there was a theory called the Mozart effect, which assumed that people became smarter as they listened to classical music by Mozart. According to an article in Tottle's series, this has since been proven false. It does 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 smarter, this may be something to keep in mind if you are trying to boost productivity over a short period of time, performing a duty that requires spatial-temporal reasoning.

Barolsky referenced previous scientific studies as well, 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," said Barolsky. "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 have proven false, what scientific studies are accurate? Merriam Saunders, psychotherapist at Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT and adjunct graduate counseling psychology professor at Dominican University, clarified the true 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 more dopamine produced would result in a more effective prefrontal cortex and the ability to be more productive. This assumes you are listening to a type of music that you enjoy and, therefore, stimulates dopamine production.

The experts we spoke to had slightly different opinions about which genre of music increases productivity the most. Barolsky and Saunders believe the best genre primarily depends on what type of music each individual enjoys, because that genre would increase dopamine levels and, in turn, productivity. 

However, Saunders suggests that the best approach to choosing music is to create a playlist of songs that you really enjoy but have heard so often that you don't need to focus on the lyrics or the beat. This would create background noise that increases dopamine but isn't too distracting.

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 include funk music, as well as video game and movie soundtracks. 

For the reverse effect, the experts agree that the music genre that negatively impacts productivity is also largely based on preference. If an individual does not like a genre, it will result in distraction and less productivity.

Saunders and Tottle both indicated that there is a fine line between music being energizing but not too engaging. Lyrics and tempo are both factors in this. 

"If a person needed to concentrate but he was listening to the lyrics, it would negatively impact the brain's ability to get the task done," said Saunders.

To the same tune, Tottle said music with lyrics or a really fast tempo can be distracting 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.

The experts agreed that different tasks are affected differently by music. Saunders said a variety of 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 the working memory – the ability to hold recently learned information at the ready.

Exercise is one task that is positively impacted by the presence of upbeat music, according to Tottle. He said that this is primarily because 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. What are your preferences? Are you listening to music you enjoy? What task are you performing? Is the music the right beat, and how much attention do the lyrics demand? This may seem like a difficult combination of factors to perfect, but once you create the right playlist to fit your preferences, you might start to notice a shift in your productivity and efficiency.

Skye Schooley

Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. After receiving a Business Communication degree from Arizona State University, she spent nearly three years living in four different states and backpacking throughout 16 different countries. During her travels, Skye began a blog at www.skyeschooley.com. She now resides in the arctic tundra that is the northeast coast, writing for Business.com.