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Published:Jun 09, 2020

Here’s What Science Says About How Music Affects Your Productivity

There are three kinds of engineers.

  1. Those who need complete silence while they’re coding
  2. Those who can work anywhere while just tuning out the noise in the background
  3. Those who put on their headphones, throw on the perfect playlist, and get to work

But does this all come down to personal choice, or is one method superior to the others?

Science tells us that programmers who listen to music while they code might actually have an edge over their colleagues. Studies have shown that people who listen to music while they work tend to be in better moods, produce work with fewer mistakes, and work more efficiently. 

Of course, listening to music while you work may not be conducive to deep work, and there are other factors at play here, like the type of music you choose to listen to (coding to a raucous polka? Maybe not the best move). 

Still, the science around the link between music and productivity is worth considering.

Think the right playlist could take your coding to the next level? You may be right. 

Music and Productivity: What Science Tells Us

The scientific link between music and productivity isn’t as simple as music makes us more productive. There are a ton of different studies that show how music might affect productivity, but in more roundabout ways.

Music Puts You in a Good Mood

One of the best ways music can help boost your productivity is by putting you in a better mood.

A study published in Trends in Cognitive Science found that music does better at combating stress and anxiety than actual anti-anxiety medication. Patients in the study who were about to undergo surgery were either given an anti-anxiety medicine or told to listen to music. At the end of the study, the participants who listened to music had lower tracked levels of the stress-induced hormone cortisol, indicating they had been less stressed for the duration of the study.

Listening to music can lower stress and anxiety

That’s not directly related to productivity, but you already know you do better work when you’re not stressed, anxious, or grouchy. If music has the ability to elevate your mood, you can use that to boost your productivity at work times.

Music Can Make Repetitive Tasks More Bearable

Another study, published by the JAMA Network, showed that surgeons tasked with repetitive tasks in the lab (outside of performing surgery) showed improved performance when they worked while listening to music. Researchers concluded they did better work because listening to music eased some of the boredom that comes with doing rote tasks.

Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, agrees with that study’s findings. In his book, he wrote that music can make repetitive tasks more enjoyable, and make it easier to concentrate while you’re doing them.

Listening to Music Between Tasks Can Boost Productivity

Should you only listen to music during your breaks? Maybe!

A study published in the journal Psychology of Music found that when students listened to music in between tasks, they were able to concentrate for longer stretches of time and ultimately performed better academically. 

Students who listened to music during breaks performed better academically than those who did not.

However, the studies that have been done on the link between music and productivity don’t make an open-and-shut case for picking out a playlist for workdays.

There’s some science that indicates music might make you less productive in certain circumstances.

The Music You Choose Can Boost or Lower Your Productivity

In other studies, researchers found that not all music is created equal when it comes to productivity.

A number of studies done on background music in the workplace had similar findings: instrumental music gave workers a boost in how much work they could get done in a short amount of time. But on the other hand, music that had lyrics tended to distract workers and actually caused their productivity to decline.

Your Own Personality Comes Into Play, Too

One interesting study showed introverts may want to skip the music and work in silence.

Published in the Applied Cognitive Psychology Journal, this 1997 study showed that extroverts who listened to music during a memory test had better short- and long-term recall. Introverts, on the other hand, performed significantly worse on memory tests if they listened to music during the tests than if they completed them in silence.

What Can We Take Away From the Science?

What science says on this subject isn’t perfectly clear.

Some studies contradict each other. There’s research that says listening to music while you work can be beneficial. There’s other research that says music can be a hindrance to doing good work. Almost every study seems to indicate that music or no music depends on the situation, the person, the type of work, and other factors.

So, to boil it all down, here are a few seemingly science-supported rules to keep in mind when considering whether to hit “play” on your work playlist.

1. Choose Music that Won’t Distract You

Science says music can be a productivity booster, or a distraction.

So err on the side of music that’s less likely to distract you, like instrumental tracks with no lyrics. If you must have lyrics, consider music in a language you don’t understand, or songs you’ve heard so many times, you can tune them out into the background.

2. If You Need to Concentrate, Stick to Music During Breaks

Consider the project you plan to work on. If it requires heavy concentration, you might be better off without music playing while you work. Instead, play music during periodic breaks. 

Remember that study that said music in between tasks can boost productivity?

Lean into that.

3. Mind the Volume

There’s a lot of science related to how loudly you play your music, and how that can affect your work.

For example, even if your music is distracting, playing it at a volume just loud enough to drown out background noise in the office might protect you from more distracting things. 

And one study from the University of Illinois showed that playing music very quietly might help while doing focused work, but turning up the volume to a medium level can boost creativity.

Should You Listen to Music While You Code?

How does all this apply to engineers?

Well, depending on your project, listening to music can complement a lot of different kinds of coding.

Having a bad day and need a quick mood boost to get into the right headspace for work? Throw on a favorite song or two.

Stuck on a problem or in a creative rut? Play some music to help disrupt your thinking and potentially find a new solution.

Spending a day doing repetitive work that’s less than stimulating? Play music to make rote tasks go faster.

And if your work for the day requires heavy focus, you might just want to skip music altogether, or only turn it on when you’ve stepped away for a break.

Keep in mind the best way to reap the benefits of music while coding is to choose the right music for the situation, which is sometimes no music at all.

How to Choose the Right Music for Coding

With all that in mind, here are a few guidelines for choosing the right music to complement your work.

Avoid Music with Lyrics

Since lyrics can be a huge distraction, choose music that doesn’t have any to maximize your concentration while you code.

Or Choose Music in a Language You Don’t Understand

Lyrics are so distracting because your brain wants to comprehend what they’re saying. If the lyrics are being sung in a language you can’t speak or understand, they’re less likely to demand your brain’s attention.

Listen to Music that’s Super Familiar to You

Alternatively, listen to music you’ve listened to so many times before, you know every word, every beat, every pause. If your brain knows what to expect, it won’t be surprised and the music will be less of a distraction.

Keep Your Music Low-Fi

With all this in mind, you might think classical music is a natural choice. In fact, there are studies that show that listening to classical music boosts things like concentration and academic performance. But not all classical music is good for work, either.

If you choose a classical track that’s dynamic in its volume changes, coming to swelling crescendos that give you goosebumps, it will be — you guessed it — distracting.

To avoid anything that tears your mind away from the task at hand, you need music that stays consistent in its volume and beat, so it can fade into the background as you hit your work groove.

When Taking Breaks, Forget all the Rules

Engineers need to take breaks. And while you’re on a break, forget all the music rules. Take full advantage of the fact that you can play whatever music you love, at whatever volume you want (as long as you’re not, you know, disrupting the entire office). When you head back to work at the end of your break, you’ll be able to do so with a boosted mood courtesy of your musical interlude.

Let the Professionals Choose the Music for You

Still not sure what music you should put on while you code? Naturally, there’s a tech tool for that.

There are a number of sites and apps that offer playlists curated specifically to promote better focus and productivity, but we particularly love Programmer’s Music, which features non-vocal, distraction-free songs timed to the Pomodoro Method, another cool trick programmers can use to boost their productivity.

To Listen, Or Not to Listen?

At the end of the day, there’s no right answer to this question. There’s plenty of science touting the benefits that come with listening to music at work, and there’s plenty of science that says tunes are just another potential distraction.

You know yourself and your work style. Feel free to experiment with playing music versus working in silence. Try out different genres and see how you feel about the work and the code you produce. Experiment with music at work, but if you find that your playlist just distracts you, that’s OK. No one method works for every engineer.

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