Music can help you be productive, as long as it’s the right music
Music’s effectiveness is dependent on how “immersive” a task is, referring to the creative demand of the work. When a task is clearly defined and repetitive in nature, research suggests that music is consistently helpful.
A series of experiments has investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry.
Assembly line workers showed signs of increased happiness and efficiency while listening to music, for example. More modern studies would argue that it isn’t the music itself, but rather the improved mood your favorite music brings that is the source of this bump in productivity.
Music with a dissonant tone was found to have no impact to productivity, while music in the major mode, or key, had better results: “Subjects hearing BGM (background music) achieved greater productivity when BGM was in the major mode.” While the open-office debate rages on, one point has become clear: a noisy workplace can halt personal productivity in its tracks.
Perhaps a pair of headphones may not be as distracting as some companies think: Dr. Lesiuk’s research focuses on how music affects workplace performance. In one study involving information technology specialists, she found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.
Again, we see improved mood as the main argument made. While the open space encourages more collaboration, the noise can be too much for some people to handle when engaging in deep work. If there is no physical escape—such as a private room—then a pair of headphones may be the best alternative.
For those who do enjoy listening to music during creative sessions, an atmospheric presence seems to work best. Researchers have shown that a moderate noise level can get creative juices flowing, but the line is easily crossed; loud noises made it incredibly difficult to concentrate. Bellowing basses and screeching synths will do you more harm than good when engaging in deep work.
A 2015 study found that when it came to sound-masking with ambient noise, “natural” sounds, such as waves at a beach, also improved subjects’ ability to concentrate.
Music with lyrics is probably not a good plan for you, since trying to make out what someone’s saying can be highly distracting. You might try classical music instead, though nothing too dramatic that’ll seize hold of your attention. Baroque music has been found to work well. Electronic music, especially New Age music, can also do the trick, with its repetitive pulse around which the music gently rises and falls in a way that can help you focus. If you need to really concentrate, a study from the Acoustical Society of America suggests your best may actually be natural sounds instead of music. There are a range of phone apps you can purchase that can produce the steady-state ambient noise a teeming brain longs for.
Maybe the best advice is just to try any music you like, bearing in mind the ideas above. Remember, for repetitive and physical tasks, pick fun music; when you have to be smart, think ambient and unobtrusive.