Ever since the term “the Mozart effect” was coined in the early ‘90s, a link has been established between listening to music and increased intelligence. But whether it’s a positive or negative link is still an issue that is debated.
Much has been written about music and its effect on productivity. Many studies have since been conducted on whether there is in fact a link between listening to music and our cognitive performance, and the main consensus of the studies is: there’s no consensus.
One study of university students found that on average, students who studied while listening to music performed worse on exams than those who studied in silence.
However, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association observed surgeons as they carried out procedures both with and without music, and found that those listening to music they liked performed the best, while unfamiliar music was still more favorable than no music at all. Contrast this with a survey of anesthetists who had music pumped through the operating theater, of which a quarter felt the music “reduced their vigilance and impaired their communications with other staff”.
Another study by published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that students who studied in silence performed better than those who listened to music. But importantly, that study only used music that contained lyrics, which undoubtedly makes a difference to our ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
Oh, and then there’s the study by the University of Windsor in Canada which found that the quality of software developers’ work was at its lowest without background music. And another where workers on an assembly line were found to be more efficient, made fewer errors—and were happier—when they listed to music.
Clear as mud, right?
While the conclusions can cause confusion as to whether or not listening to music helps or hinders, we can glean some information from the common threads through all of these studies, that an individual’s habits play a big part in how music effects their productivity, and that music can help depending on the nature of the task at hand.
Just as our musical tastes are highly personal, so too is the sort of music that can help us focus on our work. As a writer, I’m unable to focus on writing when listening to music with any lyrics, so it’s only instrumental music for me. Friends of mine who are designers don’t have the same limitation, and report that just about any sort of music (as long as they like it) helps them to get work done.
The nature of the task is important as well. For the surgeons in the above study, performing tasks which they have performed thousands of times before, music can help to focus on the process. But it’s been found that when taking on new information that causes a deviation from your normal routine, it can be best to hit pause on the music, as you need your full cognitive performance dedicated to learning—and dealing—with this new situation or information.
So when it comes to listening while you work, experiment. Find music that works for you. Personally, I find that nothing beats minimal electronic or ambient music—artists such as The Field, Boards Of Canada, or Stars Of The Lid or constant soundtracks for my work. But that’s just me.
You may find that the Mozart effect does indeed work for you, and find your own private haven in the Nocturnes of Chopin or the Preludes of Debussy. Or, you might find that something with a higher bpm creates a better work environment for you, in which case, head down the EDM route. Don’t be afraid to look for music outside of your regular listening habits as well—you might find music you wouldn’t listen to on your own time actually helps you focus at work.
Here are some resources to get you started:
- Spotify has dozens of playlists in their Focus section. They’ve got instrumental and atmospheric playlists for all tastes, from nature noise, to mellow hip-hop, to sweet, focusing jazz.
- Youarelistening.to has a vast array of atmostpheric tunes (drawn from Soundcloud) and police scanners from various cities. Which provide an excellent backdrop for intense work.
- And the cognitive benefits don’t stop at music. For those who find they thrive surrounded by the ambient noise of a coffee shop—but can’t leave the office—there’s a vast array of soundscapes online, such as Coffitivity, to trick your brain into thinking you’re at a coffee shop, without the $5 latte.
- There are also people who swear by white noise. SimplyNoise will generate white, pink, or brown noise right in your web browser. Also consider their spin-off, SimplyRain.
Whatever music works for you, remember that the more mentally demanding a task is, the more music may impinge on your ability to focus. It’s OK to take a break from sound and work in silence if you’re dealing with a particularly difficult problem.
// Michael Kalenderian, @ItsMikeKay, is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn