A lot of us listen to music while working. But does it really help to get things done? I checked 30 scientific studies to prove that it does, and if you don’t listen to anything at work – I’ll tell why you probably should.

It’s the second post in the series about music and cognitive abilities. The previous one was about different music genres, and you could check it here. But today’s question is – how listening to music while working could help you get things done?

Why music is important

Let’s start with a little warm-up, why music is so essential in the first place. It doesn’t count as a reason but delivers many cool facts, so give me a minute.

The first fact is provided by the US National Academy of Sciences. They proved that newborn babies could detect the beat in music from the first hours of their life.

Imagine, you were just born, and you already feel the beat.

More than that. Following with the New York Academy of Sciences research, music affects how we learn to read, because it’s related to listening to music rhythm. So, even before you understand what the word “music” means – it has already played an important role in your life.

But let’s add even more facts. Remember the Inception movie?

Photo from Twenty20. Rights purchased by the author.

The whole plot of the film was that someone could inject an idea into your mind, so you would accept it as your own. Sounds mindblowing, right? But, music already does it. The research from Sweden university, has shown that music listeners can absorb the tracks’ expression as their own emotion. So, you could listen to a sad song and become sad. It sounds a bit obvious but imagine – some combination of sounds could you make you sad or happy without you controlling it. Especially if there are some emotional memory or life events connected to the song.

On the other side of the coin, as provided by the University of California, if you are already sad – listening to sad music could help.

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It allows you to feel sadness in a less personal way, like watching a sad movie, so it will be easier to live through it.

The same goes for anger and extreme music, like heavy or death metal. Research from the University of Queensland proves that when you’re angry and listen to aggressive music, it could match your anger and help you recover from it, to feel more active and inspired. So, it appears that angry music doesn’t make angry people angrier. Instead, it provides a healthy way of processing anger. Aaand, yeah, I got carried away, this was our first reason that…

Music helps to find an emotional balance

Especially if you’re in a bad mood. Awesome. But we need to go deeper…

Inception, DiCaprio, we need to go deeper; you got the joke, right?

Music can affect not only your emotions but even your body itself. Another research, from the University of Geneva, shows how different music affects you. For example, arousing music leads to increased heart rate and muscle tension. While calming music is connected to decreased heart rate and muscle tension, but also increased skin temperature. From this perspective, the music feels like a smart home remote, you know?

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Increase the temperature, decrease the temperature, increase the heart rate, decrease the heart rate, increase the muscle tension… you got the idea. Spooky. But, let’s follow with the reasons.

Music improves repetitive work

And the second reason is – if your work is repetitive, listening to music could significantly improve your performance. Any paced repetitive task leads to a drop-off in attention or efficiency after a relatively short period. To deal with it, scientists from the University of Birmingham did series of factory experiments. They monitored factory workers and how their efficiency was affected by repetitive work, like working on a conveyor belt.

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So, workers did sessions in different work environments, both with and without background music. And, after a couple of weeks of experiments, researchers confirmed that background music improves both performance and quality of work.

But there’s more. Also, the research showed that the genre of the music didn’t matter a lot – both upbeat tunes and slow tunes showed similar results. The same works for lyrics if you know the words or got used to them. So, research stated everything we need – any background music you like would make you work better with repetitive tasks.

Another valuable bonus is, that even when workers got into harsh environments, with loud factory noises, background music helped them to keep or even improve their mood. And it moves to the next point…

Music helps to concentrate

…by “protecting” you from distractions. As I provided in the previous post, human speech is the number one cause of reduced productivity. It was confirmed by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health based on responses from 700 employees from 11 different companies.

And it counts even if you work from home — noisy neighbors, little kids, phone talks, or even movie or Twitch stream in the background — all of it affect your concentration in a highly negative way.

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Other usual noises, like dog’s bark, or car signals, or even other music, if you don’t like it – they make the whole situation even worse.

One of the solutions could be listening to the white noise, as a lot of offices do, by installing sound masking systems. And it could work, for sure. But, as provided by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, white noise is less effective than the more nature-sounding background.

The researchers did a couple of open-space experiments to check how the sound environment affects the productivity of office workers. They tested three different variants:

  • Default office sounds, like printing, typing, chatting;
  • White noise sounds, to mask other people noises;
  • And sounds of flowing water to mask other noises more naturally.

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Based on the results, workers who listened to natural sounds were more productive and overall in better moods than the workers exposed to traditional masking signals.

So, both white noise and nature sounds worked well enough, but flowing water helped to concentrate better and faster. Ok, but how does this relate to music, right?

As the research provided, the main point why more natural sounds win – is their randomness. While white noise is static, flowing water is changing often enough to keep the mind fresh, and not loud enough to be distractive.

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So, it sounds fair if I say that quite a lot of music tracks could fit such requirements. Of course, listening to songs with lyrics could be comical enough – masking human speech with another human speech. But, as we discussed before, after you got used to the lyrics, it doesn’t distract you as much. Especially if compared with… someone talking on the phone right next to you, or the screams of some streamer in the background.

But let’s assume that your workplace is dead silent. You can sit there in total quietness and concentrate on your thoughts without any distractions. Sounds awesome, right? Yup, but it moves us to the next reason, how…

Music increases creativity

As provided by the University of Illinois, it appears that having some background noise or music as a distraction does more for your abstract thinking than just silence. It could sound counterproductive, but hear me out.

The researchers were inspired by another research, this from the Princeton University, and it could help to understand the logic better. In the initial, Princeton experiment, people were given a list of cities and were asked to describe them and tell how far they were from their home.

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The catch is that part of the people got cities in natural, readable form, while the second part got them messed up, in hard-to-read letters order. And, based on the results, the people who got messed up names described cities in a more abstract way and judged them to be much further away than people who got natural names. This and similar studies proved that when your brain needs to work harder to process information, it tends to work on higher, more abstract levels that increase your creativity.

So, researchers from the University of Illinois decided to test this logic with sound distractions. They asked the participants to listen to different sounds and noises, while going through psychological tests to generate ideas and measure creative thinking. After series of 5 different experiments, they confirmed the expected result with some new additions. The main one is that moderate volume is most effective. A low level of background noise or music won’t annoy it as much as needed, while high volume levels would impair your creativity by being too distractive. So, if you’re thinking about some complex abstract problems, listening to the music will distract you a bit and make the process harder, but also it will improve the quality of answers you get. Seems fair.

Ok, and that makes 4, and it’s already quite a long post. If you still here – great thanks, I could get overexcited about some studies. So, let’s speed it up a bit.

  • Number 5, music increases natural stress resistance.
  • Number 6, music increases energy levels and allows you to stay active and focused for longer periods.
  • Number 7, music helps to significantly reduce insomnia.
  • And number 8, music increases sleep quality and body recharge, so it helps to recover from hard work and be ready for a new day.

But… maybe I’m not the right person to talk about insomnia and sleeping at night, because the sun is rising soon. Ping me in the comments if it’s night in your place too, so I don’t feel as guilty.

All these points, from 5 to 8, were discovered and confirmed by the United States Department of Homeland Security, as a part of the “Brain Music” program. As much as it sounds like a conspiracy theory, it’s the actual research, with all the documentation, sources, and following development.

And, of course, there’s a catch. The tested classical-sounding music was created individually for each participant, based on their brain waves. Plus, they had quite a strict listening schedule to take the maximum out of it. Still, it’s incredibly interesting research, so I’ll talk more about it in the next post about classical music and does it make you smarter. Maybe it’s already there; check the list of my posts.

. . .

For now, we got 8 reasons out of promised 5, so I hope it counts. Aaand, it’s a late night outside, **it’s time for me to sleep.

Feel free to like this post or follow my social media accounts, it makes a difference. If you want more — check my other posts. And, if you have questions or something to say — let me know in the comments. Have a good night.

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