Listen up: how music can boost your productivity

When psychologist and author Sergio Della Sala visited an Italian buffalo farm famed for its mozzarella, he discovered an unusual secret to the farm’s delicious cheese.

Owner Antonio Palmieri claimed that in addition to organic foods, his buffalos were fed a steady diet of Mozart, three times per day.

The classical music, he explained, helped them to produce better milk.

The farmer was among a growing number of people claiming that Mozart had a profound impact on the brain — of cows and humans alike.

The so-called “Mozart effect” traces back to a 1990s-era experiment involving just 36 college students.

Researchers found that after listening to one of the composer’s sonatas, participants were better able to complete spatial tasks — although the effect only lasted for about 15 minutes.

Despite the experiment’s small sample size and short-lived results, the idea exploded. Parents started playing Mozart for their babies (and unborn babies, in utero). A slew of new books were published to explain the link between the classical composer and higher mental agility.

It wasn’t until a couple decades later that a meta-analysis from the University of Vienna debunked the theory that Mozart conclusively improved brain functioning.

As further studies showed, classical music wasn’t entirely unhelpful, but the effect was more nuanced.

Ask most people today whether they tune into a playlist at the office, and the majority will say yes. In fact, a recent survey of 1,000 U.S. employees found that just 15% of respondents didn’t like listening to music while working. And 71% of respondents reported that they are “much more” or “somewhat more” productive when music is playing.

I count myself among that group. Over the years of building JotForm, I’ve gotten through some long data-crunching sessions with the “browse” function on Spotify and its endless collection of curated playlists.

But before we all invest in office-wide sound systems, it’s important to clarify just how music can improve our productivity.

Does it matter what I’m working on?

In short, yes. While music can help us charge through certain types of tasks, it can hurt our momentum and performance on others.

For example, music seems to help with activities that require focus and accuracy. That’s why it’s common to hear a playlist pulsing in a surgical operating theatre.

According to a 2011 survey, 90% of UK surgeons play music on the theatre’s sound system during operations. Though most said music contributed to a “harmonious and calm atmosphere,” a third of respondents said that it prevented them from getting bored.

While it may be surprising at first, patients and their families don’t seem to mind the surgical soundtracks.

According to one father, whose son was born via cesarean section at an East London hospital, 

“Everyone did their jobs extremely well; I’ve no complaints. But our eldest son was born to the sound of some hardcore Ibiza club hit. Very surreal.”

Another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that surgeons’ performance improved and stress levels decreased when music they liked was playing in the background. Music that they didn’t like was second best, and no music was least helpful of all.

Similarly, listening to music while working on repetitive tasks results in faster performance and fewer errors. Music we like triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These, in turn, help us to feel relaxed, happy, and more focused.

When I’m staring down a long afternoon of email scheduling, I cue up my favorite playlist and let the good vibes fuel my work.

On the other hand, most experts agree that when it comes to cognitively-demanding tasks, like reading comprehension or learning something new, most types of music hinder performance. 

The exception is relaxing, repetitive, low-information-load background music, which doesn’t seem to interfere with performance. Think: calm, soothing jazz with no lyrics or improvisational riffs.

Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” advocates against music for productivity. He explains that while listening to music might make work more pleasurable, it also occupies some of your attentional capacity, leaving you with fewer resources for the task at hand.

Levitin does, however, suggest listening to music for 10–15 minutes before you start working to jumpstart your motivation. Even better: listen to upbeat music before starting a high-cognition task.

One experiment with Canadian undergraduates found that students performed better on IQ tests after listening to an upbeat Mozart selection, as opposed to a slow, minor-key piece by fellow classical composer Albinoni.

It turns out the type of music can determine whether listening will help or hurt our productivity.

So what should I listen to?

As I’m sure you suspect, the best type of music depends on the nature of the task.

Popular music, for example, tends to interfere with complex tasks and reading comprehension. It makes sense: a Bruno Mars song comes on and we find ourselves humming and singing along with those catchy lyrics instead of directing our full attention to the task at hand.

That same popular music, however, may help with repetitive tasks or activities that require concentration and accuracy. The same goes for upbeat music like rock.

Back to the operating room, half of the UK surgeons surveyed reported that rock was their music of choice, with 17% preferring pop music and 11% classical.

Upbeat music not only makes repetitive tasks seem less boring, it also increases arousal and alertness.

But before you create a new Lady Gaga playlist, a word of warning for introverts: pop music will likely distract you more than it helps, especially on cognitively demanding tasks.

University of London psychologists found that while pop music had a detrimental effect on the cognitive performance of extroverts, the disturbance was even more pronounced with introverts.

As the researchers explained:

“Some people may thrive with music on while others, the extreme introverts, will find it immensely debilitating. This consideration is important for management who wish to optimize the output of their workforce.”

Managers should take note: while ambient music may work wonders for some, it kills mental flow for others. As such, listening should be limited to headphones.

Though some studies find that silence is the best soundtrack for cognitively-demanding tasks, if you prefer some type of music, then classical or instrumental music, with little variety and no lyrics, are your best bet.

If you haven’t browsed Spotify’s “Nature Sounds” category, you might want to try that, too. Natural sounds like ocean waves and bird calls have been shown to reduce physical and mental stress, and boost performance after listening.

I also like Focus@Will, a neuroscience-based music service that “uses the brain-shaping features of sound to keep your mind from avoiding two undesirable states: distraction and habituation.” In other words, their science-backed music helps to keep you focused.

Rules for listening while you work

The right kind of music can help us get through motivationally challenging tasks. But it’s important to know which tunes help with which tasks; and know that if you don’t like listening to music, that’s ok, too. You’re likely on the introverted side of the spectrum, so there’s no need to imitate your headphone-clad colleagues.

For managers, music should be embraced, but you may want to institute some listening rules. Some teams, for example, have instituted “earbud codes” to signify their level of focus. Two earbuds in means “do not disturb,” while one earbud in and one out means “ask before interrupting.” And both earbuds out means “I’m interruptible.”

Keeping spare headphones on hand might also be a good idea. People who are in the habit of working with music perform worse when music is unavailable. For example, developers accustomed to working with music, when asked to code in silence, had worse moods, slightly lower-quality work, and spent more time on tasks than they originally intended.

Finally, punctuate cognitively-demanding work sessions with some upbeat jams — a practice I’m going to encourage at JotForm.

If you happen to attend our next Demo Day, don’t be surprised if you hear “We Are the Champions” playing during break times.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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