Almost everyone I know listens to music while working. When I ask them why, the reasons are varied. Some say it’s to perk themselves up as they start their workday or to drown out background noise. Others, including myself, claim that listening to music helps them work better.
But what do we really know about how music affects our work? Probably not much beyond our personal perceptions and experiences. The good news is that there are some studies out there that can help to give us a better understanding of what’s happening when we listen to music while working.
Research from University of Windsor in Canada showed the effect of music on the work performance of software developers. According to the study, without background music the designers’ quality of work was lowest and it took them more time to complete tasks. With background music, participants reported positive mood change and enhanced perception while working. Plus, the researchers noted that this positive change in mood correlated with increased curiosity — an excellent thing to have when doing creative work.
However, the same research showed that listening to music at work doesn’t provide automatic benefits. For those people who don’t usually listen to music while working, it takes a bit of time for them to get used to it and reap the rewards. At the same time, once you’re used to having “work music,” your productivity and work quality are slightly diminished when the music is taken away.
The paper also cites a study on air traffic controllers where their personality may have a role in determining how music affects work. Extroverts felt reduced anxiety whenever music was playing, while there was no measurable effect for introverts. In a previous article, Anne Zelenka discussed personalizing your work music. She was right — the effect of work music depends on several factors, among them your personality.
The type of music you listen to also matters. In a study published in the Journal of Music Therapy, excitative music tends to increase feelings of vigor and tension, while sedative music eased tension. That may be stating the obvious, but here’s the interesting part: Listening to your favorite type of music, whatever it is, lowers your perception of tension. This means you don’t feel as stressed or tense. But your heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure is higher when listening to excitative music — even if you like it.
Given these facts, I guess the question of what kind of music you should play depends on whether you work better tense or relaxed. In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King wrote that he preferred to work while listening to hard rock music. Personally, I seem to work better and faster when I’m a bit tense, so my work playlist includes the soundtracks of heist films, Rhapsody in Blue, and The Toreador Song. If you’re unsure how to come up with tracks for your work music playlist, you can use tools like Pandora and Last.fm to get automatic recommendations.
So should you listen to music while working? Going back to the paper from University of Windsor, the researchers state that “…over time music listening based on workers’ choice to listen ‘when they want, as they want’, is beneficial for state positive affect, quality-of-work, and time spent on a task.” In other words, go ahead. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little to see what works for you.
How does music affect your work performance? Do you have a work playlist you can share with us?
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