It’s a debate that has raged on between parents and children, between teachers and students for decades; whether or not it is better for students to listen to music while performing their studies. We have all had the experience of being better able to stay focused while listening to music. But is it just our imagination, or does music really help us to be more productive?
There’s no debate around the idea that people experience positive emotions while listening to music. We listen to music in order to make all sorts of activities more enjoyable such as driving, doing house chores, exercising, and so on. We listen to music to help us feel more enthusiastic about tasks that are otherwise monotonous.
New research is telling us that what we told our parents during high school may be true after all; listening to music while working really can help us to stay focused and to enjoy our time at work.
Studies show that music does, in fact, reduce the effects of negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, and depression. Some researchers say that it can even reduce the intensity of delirium and confusion in the elderly while recovering from surgeries.
It’s a finding that readily jibes with our intuition. We tend to say that music helps us to feel rewarded in the moment by our work. Choosing the right type of music for the right types of activity helps us to perceive ourselves in our working capacity as being successful and productive. This is especially true with music that features lyrics- when those lyrics tell a story that is congruous with the narrative that we want to create around productive behavior.
Interestingly, the researchers found that when people listen to sad music, they are more likely to see others as being sad, and when they listen to happy music they are more prone to perceive others accordingly. With this in mind, it’s not hard to infer that listening to upbeat music that isn’t terribly interruptive can help people in an office environment to feel better about the time they spend at work. This, in turn, makes people more productive.
Where large corporations sometimes run into trouble with this is by piping Muzak into their office spaces hoping to impose a generalized positive effect on their entire workforce. While there are some benefits to this- many research participants report that they find the music to be annoying. Of course, modern information technology allows people to listen to the music of their choice while working at their own desks. This is ideal because the music selection that creates a positive working atmosphere for one person would feel like noise pollution to another person.
One of the most mysterious findings has been that a number of neurological centers in the brain that are activated by music varies from one person to another. So it’s best to avoid the ‘one sound system fits all’ answer to the question of supplying music to working people.
In addition to the fact that different people respond differently to different genres of popular music, researchers have also found that different types of music are best for different types of tasks. This is perhaps the strongest evidence for why it is a bad idea for employers, for example, to impose one type of music on their entire work force.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what types of music are best for what types of tasks.
Classical symphonies are the best type of music to listen to when performing mathematical operations, or when your work requires high attention to detail. Proof reading technical material or working on circuit boards are good examples.
Popular music is great for repetitive tasks like washing dishes, data entry, and so on. Popular music contains upbeat rhythms that are generally fun to listen to, and it also offers listeners a great deal of positive socialization-related input. This is a great help in maintaining attention in tasks that could easily become monotonous.
Genres like hard rock, hip hop, and raucous country can be a bit divisive when they are imposed on others. However, for those who enjoy it- bass heavy music and hard driving rhythms are great for boosting confidence. This is a great benefit before important meetings or before giving a presentation where confidence and assertiveness can be key to success. The research shows that these types of music should be listened to before tasks and during breaks since they can be quite interruptive. The exception, of course, is exercise. Empowering pop during fitness activities can give you the boost you need to break through plateaus in your regimen.
Music that creates a mood without using lyrics or interruptive musical styling is ideal for creative and repetitive tasks. Activities that do not require high cognitive function are best supported by ambient music. Music that is repetitive and energetic, but low on imagery has been shown to have a positive effect on pacing in tasks that would otherwise feel monotonous.
We would be remiss to omit the cognitive and learning benefits associated with the compositions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The University of California published a study that has been reproduced multiple times and is well accepted. They found that by exposing students to recordings of Mozart’s compositions increased memory retention, attention, cognitive abilities and also boosted mood. Most importantly, test scores improved. The works of this composer have been studied so thoroughly, and the benefits are so well accepted that they have come to be known as The Mozart Effect.
Music has been stimulating our imaginations, boosting our mood, enhancing social experiences, and improving the quality of people’s lives for as long as human beings have inhabited the Earth. Our relationship to music- like our relationship to food- is an extraordinarily intimate one. So it should not be surprising that it should have such beneficial effects on our ability to perform our daily tasks.
Science has shown us that using music strategically will make you more productive- and in time- we think that becoming more effective can enhance our overall enjoyment of music, and make our daily lives much more fulfilling.