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Listening to music while working: does this help productivity, hurt productivity, or depend on [fill in the blank]? What has research concluded if anything?

(Assume the use of a personal headset or working by oneself.)

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btw, this might also be a skeptical question. –  Phelios Jun 30 '11 at 9:59
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i remember reading from somewhere that classical music improves productivity. –  user145 Jun 30 '11 at 11:38
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@bckbck was that written by someone that likes classical music? –  Mongus Pong Jun 30 '11 at 12:52
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If anyone has any supporting research they can link to in their answers that'd be great. –  DuckMaestro Jul 2 '11 at 4:26
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Related: "Music And Productivity" on Skeptics.SE –  Chris Morgan Aug 16 '11 at 13:14

22 Answers 22

The only research I know about the subject, and still one of my favorite cognitive science research pieces was described in Peopleware (A great book). I don't have it now, so I can't find the bibliography, but I can reproduce the text (copy pasted from the top comment here, which is accurate if my memory serves me: "Do you listen to music while coding?" An analysis. | Hacker News):

During the 1960s, researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests on the effects of working with music. They polled a group of computer science students and divided the students into two groups, those who liked to have music in the background while they worked (studied) and those who did not.

Then they put half of each group together in a silent room, and the other half of each group in a different room equipped with earphones and a musical selection. Participants in both rooms were given a Fortran programming problem to work out from specification. To no one's surprise, participants in the two rooms performed about the same in speed and accuracy of programming. As any kid who does his arithmetic homework with the music on knows, the part of the brain required for arithmetic and related logic is unbothered by music—there's another brain center that listens to the music.

The Cornell experiment, however, contained a hidden wildcard. The specification required that an output data stream be formed through a series of manipulations on numbers in the input data stream. For example, participants had to shift each number two digits to the left and then divide by one hundred and so on, perhaps completing a dozen operations in total. Although the specification never said it, the net effect of all the operations was that each output number was necessarily equal to its input number. Some people realized this and others did not. Of those who figured it out, the overwhelming majority came from the quiet room.

Many of the everyday tasks performed by professional workers are done in the serial processing center of the left brain. Music will not interfere particularly with this work, since it's the brain's holistic right side that digests music. But not all of the work is centered in the left brain. There is that occasional breakthrough that makes you say "Ahah!" and steers you toward an ingenious bypass that may save months or years of work. The creative leap involves right-brain function. If the right brain, is busy listening to 1001 Strings on Muzak, the opportunity for a creative leap is lost.

The creativity penalty exacted by the environment is insidious. Since creativity is a sometime thing anyway, we often don't notice when there is less of it. People don't have a quota for creative thoughts. The effect of reduced creativity is cumulative over a long period. The organization is less effective, people grind out the work without a spark of excitement, and the best people leave.

On a personal note, I listen to music because my workplace is noisy.

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If you need to cancel out noise, try pink or white noise. It does not have patterns (melody, words) so your brain will filter it out after a while. But it still masks out background noise. –  xmjx Aug 5 '11 at 9:11
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There are programs to generate white or pink noise for the Mac (Noisy or White Noise) and Linux (whitenoise) and Windows (White Noise Sleep System). There's even a web-based application called SimplyNoise. –  Mei Sep 22 '11 at 15:15
    
Also you may buy a cancellation headphones with cancel the noise. I've tried them, they are awesome but they are expensive. –  kami Oct 10 '11 at 17:52
    
At a previous job with a noisy open office, I was much relieved when I got noise canceling headphones (bose qc15). I am now using bose QC20's (noise-canceling earbuds) with disconnected QC15's on top for further noise-reduction. It's better to minimize noise than turn up volume to maintain good hearing. I'm going to start using white noise most of the time. –  Devin G Rhode Oct 16 '13 at 7:31
    
Update: Been using a good white noise app on android (White Noise Lite) and have really been enjoying the crickets. First result on the play store for "white noise". –  Devin G Rhode Oct 25 '13 at 3:51

The following statements are based on personal experience. I always have my headphone with me, but put it on only 40% of the time. It really depends on the person, so you might need to experiment it out yourself.

First of all, it depends on the person.

For myself, I will kind of ignore the music when I'm on serious working mode. During the unproductive time, music doesn't help me to get to work either. I sometimes even feel sleepy listening to music during this time. However, some people get actively distracted by the songs they are listening to, making them unable to focus on their work.

Secondly, it depends on the music.

Music that is new to me has higher distraction potential than the music I already know for weeks. So avoid new music while working. Oddly, I haven't noticed any difference between soft and fast songs. They have the same effect on me. I could sleep with music on really loud. There used to be an open bar near my house, it's loud and people are singing every night.

Thirdly, it depends on what you are doing.

You might want to prevent music with lyrics when you are typing or doing something related to words. Because this might increase the chance of your brain interpreting what you hear to what you type. Probably ending up writing a letter with part of the lyrics of the song you were listening to.

UPDATE Incidentally right now I'm listening to a song that is very motivational for me. And I want to add, that songs which motivate you improve your performance. Especially those motivational songs that motivate you to do something out of the ordinary, give courage to move on. And also, songs change your mood. It makes me happy when the song touched me deep to the soul. And happiness is linked to increase of performance as well.

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If I'm studying, any form music will be very distracting. While if I'm doing something practical or answering questions here, a lot of forms of music are welcome. So I completely agree with this answer... –  Tom Wijsman Jun 30 '11 at 15:24
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I find that listening to fast music makes me type faster - and I'm not just saying that. I took a spate of typing speed tests a few months ago and when typing in silence I would be anywhere from 105-115 words per minute. Whilst listening to a fast song... 124. :) –  Anonymous Sep 21 '11 at 6:38

According to my experience with using music, and opinions of my colleagues, I think:

  1. If music is louder than some level (very personal thing), it greatly hurts productivity. In this case you can start to sing the lyrics or the melody instead of working.
  2. If music used is with some lyrics, which is not very well known by you, it hurts productivity. In this case you will spend some energy to understand the songs text. In other way, if you know text very well, it will not distract you unless #1 option.
  3. If you use music with many instruments (such as classic music), it can hurt your productivity because you'll try to analize whole composition, which is energy-intensive task. This case is very personal, because some people just can't hear only one instrument in composition, and classic music works for them.
  4. Music in general helps you to move away some distracting noises from environment So I suggest you to use well-known music with not much lyrics, on medium volume, with great head-phones.
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+1 for great head-phones –  NARKOZ Aug 17 '11 at 5:05
    
headphones may cause fatigue when used for a long time, so great loudspeakers are better... –  Sarge Borsch Mar 18 at 8:14
    
@Sarge Borsch But the speakers can be a problem if you are not alone in the office :) –  VMAtm Mar 18 at 9:16
    
@VMAtm therefore, it's better to work at home –  Sarge Borsch Mar 18 at 12:21

Generally, I find music (no lyrics) and songs that I'm pretty familiar with less distracting. I even use them sometimes as sort of "white noise" to help me focus more as they "shield" me from other noises around me in my work place.

Yet, my best way when I really need to focus for long periods of time, is to refuge to white noise like "rainy mood".

The more the music/song is having less "surprises", too meaningful lyrics or stuff that will make you focus on the music itself, the more it will help you focus.

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Rainy mood rocks ! –  Soner Gönül Jul 10 '11 at 16:08

Mozart Effect 1 is neutral at best

Even if music improves performance in some settings and on some tasks, there is evidence that the effect is not general in the sense that it does not apply in other tasks. Bridget and Cuevas (2000) found that, when compared to a no-music condition, listening to music by Bach or Mozart for 10 minutes produced no effect on subsequent mathematical problem solving performance

  • Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test" Bridgett, D.J.; Cuevas, J. (2000). Perceptual and Motor Skills, 90. pp. 1171–1175. ISBN.
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Coincidentally, I recently wrote a blog article entitled "Music to Code By", which talks about the best (and hence worst) attributes for music to listen to when you're trying to concentrate. These attributes are (in summary):

  • Unobtrusive Lyrics
  • Consistency
  • Uplifting theme

So, to answer the question directly: The right music can help, but the wrong music will certainly hinder.

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Datassette has some pretty good playlists specifically made for programming to. –  Gaʀʀʏ Nov 28 '13 at 1:11

This really depends on the person, but in general, music does tend to have positive results on your mood and abilities. For this reason it will usually cause people to be more productive. What would hurt productivity is if music is coupled with a stressful environment, because then the mind would be overloaded.

While I would lean to the side of saying that universally, music does increase productivity, I would also have to be cautious and say that the lyrics, mood and intent of the music can have an effect (if words are involved). As a musician, I also know that some music can be depressing (for example a minor key can make you sad), which won't work for most people. Also I'm well aware that while most "humans" would love music, many of us have come to dislike it for some reason or another (or a particular kind/volume of music) - and so we would be negatively affected by it.

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I made two observations on this highly subjective topic (and I can only speak for myself):

  • Rhythmic music tends to enhance my productivity, especially rock which is normally not my favourite kind of music. But I also like listening to wicket death jazz (highly dissonant and off-beat) and the complexity doesn't hurt me (as stated by @VMAtm). Melancholic music on the other side makes me think more about other things (life, humanity, love, ethics...).

  • Songs with lyrics greatly distract me if they are sung in my mother tongue (German), because they trigger some sort of response in my brain that I cannot simply switch off. I think psychologists call this selective alertness. Therefore, at work I prefer to listen to music sung in other languages.

I do not agree that classical music is diminishing productivity, because there exists both melancholic and rhythmic pieces.

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For me, it depends a lot on the task and my mood. With repetitive tasks, it's probably helpful - it makes me more likely to finish them instead of getting distracted with something else. With tasks demanding a lot of concentration (programming, mostly) it's either distracting, or neutral if I'm focused enough that I stop noticing it at all.

Overall, if I had my own office, I'd probably be better off without music most of the time. However, since I don't, the mild distracting effect has to be weighed against the fact that it lets me ignore people talking and other background noise. It can be pretty good at that.

Of course, absolutely ignoring your coworkers may not be the best thing either...

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Listening to love songs makes me put more love into my code. So music is a good thing while coding.

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I find myself sometimes pausing the music im listening to when working on a difficult concept/problem but leave my headphones in to cancel out background noise.

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+ for pure answer. –  Cynede Aug 29 '11 at 10:33

I think I remember reading that generally it does affect concentration/performance negatively. People who are really used to working with music, perform better with than without it. But they stay below the level of the others (who aren't used to listening to music while working) when those don't listen to music.

I think this was based from research, I read it in a book on learning for adolescents and that it didn't apply to classical music.

Sorry this is so vague, but I thought I'd share it anyway as it's the closest to some actual research we have here so far.

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If you do have some research (or a book) that you can link to that'd be great. –  DuckMaestro Jul 2 '11 at 23:34
    
I'm afraid I don't have it at hand. (If it's important, I could look for it, but I guess good answers have popped up by now anyway.) –  accolade Nov 24 '13 at 20:49

focus@will streams music selected such that it enhances concentration/ productivity. They back this claim with thorough research: https://www.focusatwill.com/science/science-primer/

This primer also references 38 scientific works which may be relevant to the question.

(The service can be used for free with restricted features. Personally I am highly fond of it!)

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This is a hidden gem amongst the other lower voted answers... I hope it gets voted up soon! :-) –  Highly Irregular May 2 at 5:27
    
thank you @HighlyIrregular! :) To further help boost its visibility, you may want to also upvote my 'advertising' comment to the Question. –  accolade May 3 at 15:34

I find that by listening to music with headphones on I can block other noises from the environment out. When working in an office, other noises distract you as you cannot easily predict them and be able to always tune them completely out. By listening to music you can focus more on the work you are doing.

Of course like other posts suggest in this thread, it really depends on the person and while the music type does matter, its not a simple case of looking for ambient beats. It really depends on what mood you are in, I am working at the moment listening to http://idaho.bandcamp.com/album/you-were-a-dick (not an advert, Im randomly browsing) but another time I can easily work to something like linkin park which can be seen as heavier.

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I can only listen to certain kinds of music while I'm working. If the music is new or too complicated (for me) I spend more brain power listening to the music than working.

I've stopped for a while, and I seem to be getting more stuff done, though.

Your mileage may vary, but just pay attention to whether it helps or hurts with music vs. no music, or with Pearl Jam vs. Billy Joel, or whatever.

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The effect of music on productivity definitely varies with the person in question, and how they typically interact with the music they listen to. It has been consistently found that people who are of a kinesthetic learning type (i.e. learn best through physical interaction) often feel they learn more efficiently when also listening to music, while with other learning types it can be simply a distraction.

My recommendation if you really want a solid answer for this question is to run an experiment. Find two instances of time that your work will be relatively consistent (same workload, same number of distractions). On one day allow yourself or your workers to listen to music freely; on the other day prohibit the use of any music at all. Make note of what changes occur in productivity as well as the well-being of the worker(s) in question. Typically, I find this is the best answer for knowing whether any particular influence is positively or negatively affecting my life.

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On this site they sum up some conclusions from the book The Mozart Effect by Don Campbell, which appears to indicate that certain types of music can make you more productive.

Research from the State University of New Jersey has shown that Baroque music increases your learning ability. I first heard about this at a speedlearning course, where they also suggested Baroque music while speedreading.

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I actually use music as an advanced Pomodoro technique. Pomodoros work by associating your brain with the ticking sound when it's time for work. What I do is replace the Pomodoro ticking with a 25 minute or 45 minute playlist, depending on how long I want to focus.

There's a few studies that show that your brain is most efficient on the start and end of a task. That's the key to most timeboxing techniques. The drawback with many techniques like Pomodoro is that you don't naturally know when you're nearing the end of your timeboxed period.

What I do is set the first 15 minutes of a productivity playlist to upbeat 'productive' songs. The last 5 minutes are productive, panicky songs (my personal choice is Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out For A Hero). Then in between insert slower, 'gliding' songs.

If you know how habits work, you'll know that everything starts with a cue. Your first song of a productivity playlist begins with a unique tone as a cue. This will trigger your work mentality subconsciously.

To prevent distraction, use the same songs and condition yourself to them. It takes maybe a day of listening to the same songs for it to kick in. Also don't use songs with uneven beats, like punk or alt rock. Dance songs can be among the best. I'd say classic has 'proven' success because most move between melodies gradually, very much suited to dancing.

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It depends a lot. That said, I sometimes find that listening to music that I've never listened to before while working will put me in a state of heightened alertedness. It's as if the concentration I spend on the music carries over to whatever else I'm doing. This works best for data input of not-to-great complexity.

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I listen to a lot of electronic music so lyrics that distract is almost a non-issue for me :P But the other problems remain when it comes to new music, or music that is too powerful/too energetic. Because I tend to look more into newer music, Pandora isn't a good music player for me because oftentimes an unfamiliar track will play I have to stop and look what artist and what song it is. I stick with my familiar playlists and play songs that are on heavy rotation.

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I can be all over the place with music and tend to go through phases. I use Pandora for this and it serves me great for this. Recently what has been working really well for me is Techno (I strongly prefer no or sparse lyrics) before lunch and Opera in the afternoon (it's taken me a long time to come around to Opera, lemme tell you). I'm also a fan of Ambient, Smooth Jazz, and classical in general.

That said, one of my mainstay's is a 60-minute track of "Pure White Noise". At the right volume, it puts me alone with my thoughts and code into a cocoon.

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This is based on my own experience and is aimed towards the area of studying.

I've found that most of the time listening to music while studying hurts, not helps productivity. Sometimes I'll be reading and listening and an entire hour will pass by till I realize that I'm not even processing the words that I'm reading. Yet, there are two occasions when I do permit myself to listen to music while studying.

When distracted
When I can't seem to study because my mind is anywhere but in a book, I listen to music because it helps mute all other distractions. The only downside is that I can't study that well/fast. But it's better than nothing. I make sure to turn it off some odd thirty minutes later, once the distractions are smothered.

When lacking enthusiasm
I sometimes also listen to music when I don't have enthusiasm for what I'm doing. I heard from a study I saw on the news a while back (no sources, sorry) that listening to your favorite kind of music for forty-five minutes helps studying. BUT, not while you study. Just concentrate on music listening. They also said that it doesn't have to be classical music. It has to be the kind of music that gives you that "good feeling." (Blues and minor key songs are probably not that good of an idea). After forty-five minutes, turn off the music and study.

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