How Music and Sounds Affect Your Productivity

25.10.2020 |

Episode #6 of the course How to set up a productive working environment by Melissa Chu


Yesterday, you learned to set up an ergonomic office for a healthy and comfortable work environment. Today, we’ll go over how sounds and music impact your productivity.


How Sounds Impact Productivity

To determine the right noise level for work, a study tested participants’ creative thinking at differing volume levels: 50 decibels, 70 decibels, 85 decibels, and complete silence. For reference, here’s a noise comparison: 50 decibels is a quiet suburb, 70 decibels is watching TV, and 85 decibels is a food blender.

Researchers found that participants working in a 70-decibel environment outperformed the other three groups. The study concluded that some ambient noise was conducive to abstract thinking and creativity (as opposed to little or no noise).

A study also found that music has a positive effect on work performance. Participants completed their tasks more quickly when they were listening to music, had improved moods, and greater creativity than those who did not listen to music at all.

Not all music is good for work though.


Factors That Determine the Effectiveness of Music at Work

Dr. Haake, a music psychologist, has researched our attitudes towards music at work. She has found that there are certain factors that determine whether music is helpful:

Listening habits: Someone who is used to listening to music during work will find it less distracting than someone who doesn’t normally listen to music.

Control: When someone lacks control over their music choices, the music is more distracting than beneficial.

Music structure: Songs with a complex music structure are more distracting than songs with a simple structure. A complex structure refers to songs that have varying chords, while a simple structure sticks to a few music chords.

Lyrics: Lyrics can be distracting because they interrupt the person’s train of thought and cause the person to listen to the words rather than focusing on work.

Task difficulty: Music is more likely to get in the way of tasks that require high degrees of concentration and thought. However, music can help listeners push through repetitive tasks.

The answer to whether we should listen to music and sounds while we work is: it depends. Based on her research, Dr. Haake has created a tool to figure out what type of music you should listen to.


What Type of Music Should You Listen To?

To figure out what type of music is a match for your work, answer the following two questions:

1. Are you an introvert or extrovert?

Introverts get energy from being on their own, preferring smaller group settings and quiet activities. Extroverts gain energy from others, enjoying large crowds, and chatting with others. Ambiverts are in between, needing both a mix of solitude and social interaction.

2. How complex are your tasks?

Are your tasks simple, routine work that doesn’t require decision-making, or are they complex tasks that require analytical thinking and creativity?

Think about your responses for a few minutes before proceeding.


Haake’s research has found that individuals with complex tasks and introverted personalities should listen to downbeat music, which has a lower number of beats per minute (slower music). That means:

• If you are an introvert who works on complex tasks, you should listen to downbeat music. Example: Foo Fighters – Learn to Fly

• If you are an extrovert who works on simple tasks, you should listen to upbeat music. Example: MNEK – At Night

• If you fall into neither of the above (example: extrovert/complex tasks), you should listen to medium music. Example: Major Lazer – Lean On

Here are some types of music I have found helpful for work, no matter where you’re at:

Nature music: Nature sounds, such as rainfall, wind, and ocean waves, can mask distracting sounds and provide a sense of calm. Nature music is usually downbeat.

Video game music: Video game music is designed to put the player in a state of mind that helps them power through tasks. Video game music is usually medium to upbeat.

Ambient music: This genre of music is designed to set a mood or atmosphere to a surrounding. Brian Eno, composer of Music for Airports, says ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Ambient music is usually medium to downbeat.


Your Mood Impacts Your Work

Try experimenting with different music and see what works. You might need a pick-me-up from energetic music, or maybe you want to de-stress by listening to slow, calming music.

When you get yourself in the right mood, you can focus and become more productive. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the effect of color on mood, and how to use it for work.



Recommended book

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin


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