Understanding music and productivity: how to improve your focus with music

Ieva Sipola 22.02.2024
Music doesn’t increase your productivity

Your relationship with music and productivity is a very individual and personal thing. After all, maybe you don’t want your colleagues and your boss to know that listening to video game soundtracks boosts your productivity. Or, that you need to listen to Indian mantras to calm down before important meetings. 

If music helps to get you through the workday, you’re not alone. Almost 80% of employed people believe that listening to music at work increases their productivity, either by improving their mood or reducing stress levels. 

On the other hand, 4% said that music decreased their productivity. This means that we cannot talk about the relationship between music and productivity without looking at the type of work one is doing and the music style they’re listening to. 

For example, one study found that 73% of warehouse workers were more productive when there was background music playing. Another study reported that workers doing data entry, solving math problems, and proofreading produced more accurate work and worked faster when listening to music.

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What kind of music benefits focus and productivity?

With music streaming platforms being universally available, any kind of music is just there at our fingertips. We just have to be creative enough to know how to search and find the music that helps us focus on our work. 

Different music genres can have varying effects on productivity, with classical music, instrumental music, and ambient music being cited as beneficial for focus and productivity. On the other hand, music with lyrics (that you know or understand) might hinder productivity more than help it. 

We wanted to learn more about music and productivity in the workplace, so we asked DeskTime users what music they liked listening to at work.

While DeskTime users are a very diverse crowd in terms of professions and nationalities, they have one thing in common – they mostly spend their workdays in front of their computers. In other words, there are few hospitality, warehouse, and on-site retail workers among DeskTime users. 

Computer work is associated with the need to focus your full attention, so the music consumed at work needs to be neutral and not distracting. Probably for this reason, almost one-third (27%) of DeskTime users said they listened to classical/instrumental music at work. However, 33.7% said they listened to Pop/Rock at work, and 36.5% said they listened to something else

Interestingly, some people admitted to listening to video game music during work hours. Good for them, as we’ve written before that video game music is designed to help you to stay focused and motivated to finish your tasks and get to “the next level”.

The science behind music and work productivity

Music and productivity are linked in several scientifically proven ways. For example, listening to music can activate areas of the brain associated with attention, memory, and execution, leading to improved focus and performance. In addition, music can help reduce stress and anxiety, further enhancing productivity in various work settings. 

There’s a direct scientific relationship between music and productivity in the workplace:

  1. Listening to music that you like boosts the levels of neurotransmitter dopamine – a brain chemical that can help people focus, plan, and organize. Dopamine can be especially helpful to people dealing with repetitive tasks.
  2. Music activates different neural networks of the brain, including those associated with creativity and motivational behavior. Thus, the areas in the brain responsible for creative thinking and motivation work more intensively while listening to music.
  3. Music can activate the brain’s reward centers, especially when hearing novel chords or melodies. 
  4. Lyrics, particularly familiar music with lyrics, can be distracting and performance-decreasing. Therefore, music without lyrics may be better for stimulating complex problem-solving and creativity. 
  5. According to a DeskTime study of 6028 users from 50 different companies, employees tended to work longer hours if they listened to music. Their workday got about 7% longer, and 67% of this extra time was spent on productive work.

So, does listening to music make you more productive, according to science? Indeed, many researchers have concluded that music listeners are, on average, more productive than others – thanks to the enhanced brain activity stimulated by music. 

However, the connection between music and productivity is not universal and depends on various factors, such as the type of music, the listener’s preferences, and the task being performed.

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Tips & tricks for music and productivity in the workplace

So, does listening to music help you focus on work? It sure can – if you listen to it the right way. Follow these tips on what kind of music to play, when, and how.

1. Play the music you like

We’ve already mentioned dopamine – the chemical which can enhance alertness and productivity. To stimulate dopamine production, you need to listen to music you really like and enjoy. One study even found that dopamine release was strongest during “peak emotional response”, i.e., “goosebump moments”. 

Simply put, listening to preferred music makes you feel happier, increases creativity, alertness, and helps you focus on the tasks that must be done.

2. Choose music without lyrics

Music without lyrics will serve as a better background for productive work. Luckily, there’s ample choice for instrumental music that’s proven to be beneficial for focus and productivity, including classical music (particularly – baroque-period music), ambient music, jazz, electronic music, etc. 

It’s important to note that the music can contain lyrics, as long as you don’t understand them. Therefore, foreign folk music or electronic music with lyrics in a foreign language can work just as well as instrumental tunes.

3. Create suitable playlists

Curate a playlist of songs that help you stay focused and motivated. Keep it varied but consistent in mood and tempo to maintain your concentration.

Use different types of music for different assignments. For instance, fast-tempo music can boost energy for mundane tasks, while slower-tempo or ambient music might be better for deep-focus work.

Finally, music in major mode can work better for meetings, as it enhances interpersonal communication and feels more satisfying, smooth, and “happy”.

4. Experiment and adapt

Your focus needs might change depending on the assignment or your mood, so be flexible in your approach. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different genres, soundscapes, or even silence. 

Explore nature sounds, white noise, or binaural beats (lower beta frequencies 14 to 30 Hz have been linked to increased concentration and improved memory), or even ASMR. Many people find these types of sounds helpful for concentration as they mask background noise and create a calm environment.

5. Use music as a trigger

Using music as a trigger is a witty way of maximizing the relationship between music and work productivity. Here’s how it works:

Condition yourself to associate certain music with work. In other words, always listen to a certain playlist when you’re doing a typical assignment that requires concentration. 

Over time, this playlist will start serving as a trigger, signaling your brain that it’s time to focus whenever you hear those tunes.

Does music increase productivity?

We can say with full confidence that it does. 

But be careful – it can work the opposite way, too. If you choose the wrong music and listen to it at the wrong time.

Luckily, one of the most important factors in understanding music and work productivity is listening to music you enjoy. So, pick your favorite music genres and start creating playlists that boost productivity in your line of work. And don’t forget to experiment with new music, nature sounds, and binaural beats.

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