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Personalizing Your Music for Productivity

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Can listening to music while you work make you more productive? Could it make you smarter, or at least look that way? It depends. It depends on your personality, your energy level, the kind of music you’re listening to, the projects you’re doing, and your music-listening habits.

Online services like and Pandora suggest songs based on artists, songs, and styles you say you like, on your listening patterns, and on what your friends or people similar to you like and listen to. But those services don’t do any industrial engineering of the web worker mind, observing your work habits and how they interact with your music listening, then playing music designed to help you work better, faster, smarter. If you want that kind of personalization, you’ll have to do it yourself.

While we’re waiting for Web radio to see the possibilities of productivity-oriented personalization, try these tips for choosing music to work by:

Go for less distracting music when you need strong focus. “Low information load” music–songs with little variety and complexity, those with few or no lyrics–allow you to concentrate better. I listen to SomaFM’s Groove Salad ambient music station when I’m researching complex topics. Alternatively, pick music that you’re familiar with when you need to concentrate. The more you’ve heard a piece of music, the less it will distract you. When you’re cramming to get a project done and don’t feel like the drone of ambient tunes, you might try old favorites from your iTunes or emusic library.

If you’re feeling sluggish, listen to something new and different. Music you’ve never heard before, music that introduces new demands on your brain can raise your energy level. When you’re dragging, that’s the time to try a recommendation service like MyStrands or Yahoo! LAUNCHcast that will play something other than what you already own. Or try Musicovery, where you can enter the style and mood of music you want to hear.

Keep your temperament in mind. Introverts perform less well than extroverts when listening to background music. Choosing music for optimal productivity means getting yourself into your energy sweet spot, where you’re alert and motivated but not anxious and tense. Introverts reach sensory overload earlier than extroverts. On the other hand, highly extroverted people sometimes focus better with music than without–they feel most comfortable with their senses fully engaged.

But don’t despair if you’re a music-loving introvert. People who regularly listen to music while they work or study perform better while listening to music than people who usually work in silence. So you may be able to train yourself to work well with background music, even if you’re temperamentally suited to a more quiet environment.

How do you use music to help you work better? Share your ideas here.

19 Responses to “Personalizing Your Music for Productivity”

  1. Heard something similar to this on Wired about (Asimov’s?) background noise idea, and then later on LifeHacker.

    -I wonder if anyone’s tried this stuff and what their results were. I d/l’d bwgen & a few tones but never listened much, somafm is just too cool.

  2. I allways listen to something when im working, if its not music then i leave the TV on in the background. Silence allways distracts my brain and i end up thinking about other things, other than work. Personally i prefer something not to hyper when im working more chilled out like pink floyd.

  3. The site is pretty interesting, lots of info about music. Just cannot work without smth cute in earphones:) * is a site, which i visit last time, no complains:)

  4. Music helps me concentrate and focus better. I prefer to use my Ipod instead of searching for the right stuff online. The moment I put on those earphones – I’m cut off from the rest of my surroundings — no phone calls, no noisy neighbors nothing comes in the way — Like I’m in the zone….

    Anything – 12 girls band, karunesh, Karsh Kale, Buddha Bar, Thievery corp, bollywood etc. goes.

  5. Pablo Apanasionek

    In my case, it all depends on the task I’m trying to accomplish: if I must finish something ASAP, I love to loop one or two Pearl Jam songs eternally (or just until I am done). Otherwise, I prefer randomizing 4 or 5 albums at low volume. But I can assure that music works at getting me more productive.

  6. When I’m working I tend to turn off my music entirely unless it’s on an extremely low volume. I effect, I find music useful for work only when it acts as a form of white noise – it blurs all the other audible distractions (like traffic, housemates moving around etc.)

  7. It is a problem for me because when music is on I cannot help but listen to the music — no matter what it is. The most annoying thing is when a piece of music resembles something else — I spend ages trying to figure out where samples, bass lines, melodies etc came from. I cannot help figuring out the number of instruments, what they are, how many voices, could it be done live, the key and key changes, the time signature, finally, I listen to the words and wonder what they mean. I hear the breath in sax solos and the fret noise on a guitar. Not doing this would be like unlearning English, or forgetting how to read. I have tried to have “background” music, I have tried to drive fast while music is on, I cannot do it… I am cursed! I have no idea about adverts on TV if they have music, and I lose the plot in films if there’s music underneath. Don’t try to have a conversation unless the music is really bland, I know it well already and it’s just been on!!!!! And don;t get me started about speeded up recordings off standard pitch or singers going flat on X factor! Aaaargh!

  8. bob watson

    I use a new site called haystack. it’s a social network that has licensed indie and major content (kind of like a free rhapsody). The cool thing it has a player so you can make a playlist and listen all day as well as this social bookmarking tool called “stacking.” I just wish they had a bit more on the jazz and classical side.

  9. I vary wildly on my listening habits as I work. Often, it’s completely dependent on location – something a little more subtle on site with a client (soundtracks, Ministry of Sound Chillouts, Buddha Bar, Mercedes Benz Mixed Tape, etc.). Working from home, I can go wild.

    That said, NPR, Radio Netherlands and Deutsche Welle Radio get a good share of my time (I’m a current affairs junkie).

  10. Music in general relaxes me, and then I get a lot more done. I can listen to a variety of different types of music and get the same effect. Whether it’s Sheryl Crow, Frank Sinatra, Crosby, Stills & Nash; it doesn’t matter nor am I all that concerned.

    It’s the music that I enjoy.

  11. My favorite writing music is Frank Sinatra, and old school crooners. However, when I am answering email, I put on more modern sounds of the ESL Crew like Chris Joss, Thievery Corporation, and Ursula 1000. Rest of the time, I put on stuff like Billie Holiday, Ella and more old jazz/blues stuff.

    I have found, that music where words are powerful, always inspires me to write better. Aka words beget words.

  12. I have different music for different needs. Sometimes its music that breaks me out of a particular mood, or it is to put me into a particular mood. I like picking music that has sort of an ebb and flow, rather than some straight forward continuous beat. That having been said, I am sometimes in the zone where something like Rob Zombie or Rammstein is exactly what the doctor ordered. When I am in sort of a creative mood where the ebb and flow is needed, something like Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime or one of the Lord of the Rings soundtracks is just what I needed. Operation Mindcrime is something that is nostalgic for me because I had perhaps my most continuously productive period just when it came out and I listened to it for months on auto-repeat. Now when I am in a flustered mental state and can’t get into the groove, I just put that on and its like a homing beacon to productivity.

    When I am in sort of an ambivalent musical mood, I just listen to a favorite internet radio station on Live365 and eventually they play something that strikes my fancy and I go listen to that album or artist. Sometimes I just need to restumble over things that I have loved in the past.