Does listening to music make you more productive or less productive?

What types of music or sound can help and hinder different types of business tasks?

Is music the best thing to listen to while you work?

These are the questions we are going to answer today!

My Hypothesis from My Experience

I have been working on computers since I got my first one almost 40 years ago. I have done everything from listening to noise machines to working in cubicles and call centers, coffee shop work, listening to movies or TV shows, to dead silent workspaces.

In my experience, repetitively playing familiar calm-sounding music is the best for productivity.  My music of choice for getting things done is Roger Waters or Pink Floyd. I switch it up sometimes with Fountains of Wayne, or Barenaked Ladies and even a little Smashing Pumpkins, but I only play Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Fun Fact: Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins is such a huge professional wrestling fan, that he founded his own league called Resistance Wrestling.

If I need a serious software-debugging level of focus, I opt for headphones with nothing playing — just getting the room as silent as possible except for the hum of computer fans.

Otherwise, it’s repeatedly playing the same songs and playlists over and over.

So my guess is that this will work for most people – a combination of silence for intense concentration and repetitive background music for other tasks.

Your Own Brain is the Enemy of Productivity

When it comes to getting big tasks or long-term goals completed, your brain reacts by simulating real productive behavior with smaller, easier to complete tasks.

This is similar to the theory of “simple home repair jobs people try to do to avoid packing for vacation.”

According to researcher John Bargh, your brain will attempt to simulate real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.

Numerous studies have shown the best way to accomplish a task is to get started on it immediately.  The longer you procrastinate, the more likely you will never complete it and more likely it will take longer than expected. It also means the more likely you are to be distracted by something else.

The Zeigarnik Effect is a construct that psychologists have observed in numerous studies on suspense. One such study gave participants brain-buster puzzles to complete, but not enough time to complete them. The surprising thing was, even when participants were asked to stop, over 90% of them went on to complete the puzzles anyway.

People want to finish what they have started.

Lastly, productivity and multitasking don’t mix. Many people think they are good at it, and they might be, but even the best multitaskers have nothing on the average person who stays on task.

Tasking for 60-90 minutes at a time with a short break improves performance and mimic human energy cycles.

Does Music Improve Productivity?

Unfortunately, like most things, it’s not as cut and dry and a simple yes or no.

It’s important to keep in mind how immersive the task is that you are working on.  How much concentration, repetition, learning or creativity does the task require?

Does listing to music improve your #productivity? Click To Tweet

Repetitive Tasks – Music is a Win!

Some studies argue that background noise is the deciding factor, but music works too!

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 accure from the use of music in industry.

The studies also show a “positive mood improvement” when background music was played for workers in the study.

Music Interferes with Learning

Turns out ANY distraction will hurt learning and retention. This includes studying.

Dr. Sarah Ransdell of Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale also concluded it is a myth that instrumental music is less distracting than vocals. All types of music had the same effect, she said.

TV shows or movies even played in the background without being watched, have been shown to impair both learning and concentration. Constant ambient noise, like machinery or traffic, can also lead to irritability…  even when that stimulus is not present.

Ambient Noise Improve Creative Function

The effects of ambient noise or music are not always bad. Moderate noise can help with creativity up to a point.

Results from five experiments demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.

Music with exceptionally high pitched or low pitched sounds should be avoided. When you are working on a creative task, mellow gets the job done best.

Writing, Mathematics or Intense Concentration?

Silence is best for concentration.

If it’s writing, language, or mathematical tasks, ambient noise or low music are the winners, but only if the music does not contain lyrics.

Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working.

A Canadian study of programmers demonstrated that silence is best, but music with lyrics was worse than instrumentals. Also, mood was improved with music, so instrumental music may be a fair trade for productivity without distraction.

Familiarity is Best

As I suspected from my own personal experience…

It may be beneficial to listen to music you are familiar with if you need to intensely focus for a project.

The reason being is that new music is surprising; since you don’t know what to expect, you are inclined to listen closely to see what comes next.

With familiar music, you know what lies ahead and thus the sound doesn’t become your primary focus.

While the “journey” of new music is certainly beneficial in other ways, you may want to tread a familiar path if you are using music to help get things done.


Low volume ambient noise or instrumental music works best for creative tasks, writing tasks, and mathematical tasks, such as accounting.

When it comes to concentration, keep it quiet.

And for repetitive tasks, music you are familiar with and love is the best, as long as the volume isn’t too loud all the time.

…and remember to take a break every 60-90 minutes!