Does music help us work better and more creatively?

There doesn’t seem to be a standard line on listening to music while working. Some people swear by it, while others finding it distracting. With the advent of ubiquitous headphones, listening to music has become a private option. And in some open office settings where “headphones are the new wall,” listening to music has become a defensive stance against noise encroachment.

I read a 2005 psychology study by Teresa Lusiak, The effect of music listening on work performance, on the impact that music has on groups of software developers, and the results were fascinating.

Lusiak reviewed a number of other studies that had studied different sorts of work groups, but I found the core of her study more reflective of the modern world, in which most knowledge workers find themselves: heads down much of the time, searching out creative answers to tractable problems and coordinating work the rest of the time.

I have cherry-picked her results, leaving out citations and graphs. My comments are in brackets:

State Positive Affect is defined as the extent to which an individual displays enthusiasm for life .

[A long-winded way to say “happy.”]

[…]

The general hypothesis proposed in this article is that music listening in some work environments evokes positive affect or mild positive feelings, which in turn increase performance on tasks requiring creative output.

[Environments like those of software developers making software.]

[…]

Upon separate analysis of State Positive Affect of each participating company, one company’s responses to music listening were unequalled. This  particular company’s participants, considered at the outset a ‘low music listening’ group, did not show an increase in positive affect until the third week of music listening (week 5 in the study design). This result was unexpected. Does it take time for those unaccustomed to listening to music at work to benefit from the effects of music on mood? Do individuals need time to discover how music affects them and how they can best use that effect in their workplace? This seems to be the case for one novice listener who stated after the ‘no music’ listening week: ‘I plan to continue listening to music at work. I never listened to music before or felt the need. This was a positive experience.”

[To clarify: The biggest gains in happiness were in the company that had previously listened to music the least while working.]

[…]

the findings support the suggestion that state positive affect increases one’s ability to relate and integrate divergent material. This applies to the computer software developers’ need for integrating divergent materials when designing and developing programs for computer information systems. A comment from one participant, ‘It [music listening] helped in relaxation, getting around [mental] blocks by changing thoughts instead of getting “tunnel visioned,”’ reflects the influence of music listening to alter mood and its role in altering perception of materials; the resulting effect, both resilient and dependable, of State Positive Affect on cognition and social behaviours has implications for organizational settings.

[Clearly one of the largest challenges to knowledge workers today is to be able to make connections where they had not been evident before.]

[…]

Additionally, listening to music reduced time on systems life-cycle tasks (p < .05). All pair-wise comparisons involving the use of music listening showed that when music was removed there was more time spent on tasks than intended. Individuals are more energized and more alert through perceiving and physically responding to music listening. This synchrony with the music assists in pacing their work tasks, and further, in pacing their work day.

[This is the clearest statement about productivity: Listening to music made the developers more productive.]

Contrary to previous findings that the amount of music listening made no difference to mood (Oldham, 1995), this study found a modest but statistically significant positive correlation (r = .328, p < .05) between music listening time and trait positive affect. This result suggests that the stable trait of positive affect is aligned with music listening and may be interpreted two ways. That is, first, that individuals with a positive affect disposition tend to listen to music while they work, or secondly, that individuals are positively affected over time by music listening. What does this music listening group ‘know’ that the habitual non-listeners do not ‘know’? Possibly, these individuals may
be proficient at recognizing their current mood state and the projected, necessary mood state for the context or task they have to tackle (DeNora, 2001).

[There is a correlation between the amount of time spent listening to music while working and the degree of happiness. Why? Those that are naturally more happy may be more inclined to music listening, or music makes people happy and the more the better. Also, people who listen to more music might fine-tune what music they listen to based on the mental state it engenders.]

Lastly, a significant correlation was found between trait positive affect and trait-curiosity (r = .482, p = .01). This is important as curiosity is essential for developers who are regularly required to be creative in designing computer software systems. Music listening may provide an opportunity for developers to align themselves with their optimum creativity.

[An added correlation: Music listening is linked to curiosity, which is foundational for creativity.]

To recap Lusiak’s findings:

  • There is clear evidence that listening to music while doing knowledge work is correlated to happiness and higher productivity.
  • Those who had the least experience listening to music had the biggest gains in happiness and productivity.
  • Those who scored the highest seemed to be able to match the music they chose to match the tasks they were undertaking.
  • There also seems to be a correlation between creativity and music listening at work.

This winds up be a no-brainer, then. People should  clearly listen to music at work, although for those who are unused to it, it may take several weeks for the positive benefits to begin.