Researchers have studied the relationship between music and work for a long time now. Here’s how you can come up with a personal strategy for using music as a productivity booster.
I met another writer recently who told me that he can’t write unless he’s sitting in a busy coffee shop with lots of ambient noise. That would be impossible for me to do. Because if I hear any words besides the ones swirling around inside my head, I can’t focus.
That said, not every task I do requires a quiet environment. For instance, when I’m doing any sort of business administration or project management tasks, I play loud upbeat music. We’re talking ’80s rock ballads and ’90s alt hits. This “90s Rock Anthems” Spotify playlist is in heavy rotation in my house:
On the other hand, when I’m working on strategy and content creation, I listen to instrumental music or ambient sounds. This “Long Ambients” playlist by Moby is one of my favorites:
But is this a subjective matter? Not just in terms of the music we prefer to listen to when we work, but in terms of whether music makes us more productive or creative?
According to some researchers, there may be some common ground among us all when it comes to music and productivity. In this post, I’m going to share some of the research and suggest ways in which designers and developers can use it to improve productivity, creativity, as well as job satisfaction.
While researching this subject, I found dozens of studies that compared the relationship between music and work. The only problem is that the studies are somewhat limited in scope.
So I don’t want to suggest that music is a cure-all for an unproductive day. Instead, let the following research provide you with some direction on what to put on in the background if you do enjoy listening to something while you work.
There are so many reasons why you might be in a bad mood when you’re working. Maybe a client yelled at you. Or one of your contractors went MIA. Or perhaps something personal soured your mood.
There’s a mood management technique in the field of music therapy called the iso principle. You don’t need to check yourself into therapy to reap the benefits of this technique. Just take a step back from your work, open your music player and do what a therapist would do.
First, gauge your current mood and then play a song that matches it. For example, let’s say you just got chewed out by a client and are feeling pretty down about it. You might start with a song like “Fake Plastic Trees”:
When the song finishes, queue up one that’s a level up in terms of positivity. Perhaps a bit faster in tempo, with some harder beats and a more optimistic message. Continue to do this, choosing songs that level up in positivity until you reach peak positivity.
For instance, you might finish the exercise off by playing a song like “I’m Still Standing”:
According to the iso principle, the gradual change in terms of musical mood should result in a gradual change in your own mood. If you think about it, this is probably something you do in your personal life when you’re feeling down or frustrated or in a funk. You throw on something that makes you smile and want to move because it feels better than wallowing in the negativity. This music therapy exercise simply formalizes the process.
One word of advice:
When the iso principle was originally studied, music therapists tended to use calm classical music. However, if that’s not your jam, use music that makes you happy. According to a study called “Effects of background music on concentration of workers”:
“We conclude background music influenced listener attention. This influence has more to do with listener fondness for the music than with type of music. Compared to situations without background music, the likelihood of background music affecting test-taker attention performance is likely to increase with the degree to which the test-taker likes or dislikes the music.”
While this experiment was performed on test takers, it should be just as relevant to anyone who’s focused on a task. As you’ll see in some of the tips coming up, some of the music that makes you happy might not be great in terms of resetting your mood while you actually work. However, if you need a quick mood adjustment, put your work aside and crank whatever tunes make you feel better.
In a Spotify study from 2021, 43% of respondents said they play instrumental music whenever they work on something that requires brain power—like creative tasks or data analysis. It’s not just Spotify users that find this useful.
For starters, the study “Background music: effects on attention performance” found that music with lyrics negatively affects how well people are able to concentrate and focus. So there’s certainly something to the usefulness of instrumental music while working.
But would it be better to just work in silence?
According to a study called “Happy creativity: Listening to happy music facilitates divergent thinking,” researchers gave some participants happy classical music to listen to while working on a creative task and the rest worked in silence. There were two types of creativity they were concerned with:
When it came to convergent creativity (i.e., linear problem solving and critical thinking), music neither helped nor hindered the participants’ work. When it came to divergent creativity (i.e., brainstorming, hypothesizing and experimentation), however, participants listening to music were more creative.
Here we see again how positive music leads to better work performance. But now we also have some proof as to what types of music help improve creativity and when you should listen to it.
For web designers, instrumental music would be really useful in the early stages of your jobs all the way through to design. You may want to hit the pause button on your music, though, when you move into prototyping, testing and debugging. It doesn’t appear that instrumental music will hurt the convergent creativity needed in these stages. But it’s something worth exploring on your own in case it does affect you negatively.
If you’re looking for an instrumental playlist to give your divergent creativity a boost, I personally enjoy this “Focus Flow” playlist:
The songs are upbeat and the rhythms aren’t super complicated, so they do a great job creating a feel-good atmosphere when you’re working.
Have you ever heard of something called the Generalized Mozart Effect (GME)? I knew there was a connection between classical music and productivity, but I didn’t realize it was only certain types of classical music that it applied to as well as a certain type of productivity.
The GME suggests that there are certain songs by Mozart (as well as other musicians) that improve listeners’ spatial-temporal reasoning skills. This refers to our ability to conceptualize and manipulate objects through space and time.
Researchers aren’t totally clear on why this happens, though many believe it has to do with the structure of the brain. PET and magnetic resonance scans have found an overlap between where music perception happens in the brain and where spatial-temporal tasks are managed.
While it’s not directly cited in the research above, I think what they’re talking about is neuroplasticity. The theory that you can rewire and strengthen your brain through experience.
In the study, they observed young children who received music lessons for six months. At the end of their training, not only could they play basic pieces from composers like Mozart and Beethoven, but their spatial-reasoning tests exceeded the control group who had no musical training by 30%.
In the adult study, they only looked at what kind of effect listening to Mozart’s music over a span of 10 minutes would have on participants. It demonstrated a similar effect, just shorter lived.
While researchers were skeptical about the power that Mozart’s music had on spatial-temporal reasoning, they ran the same test on mice. They wanted to know if a person’s preference for classical music might have impacted the test results. However, the observed mice performed the same way the human test subjects did.
So, there is something to the theory.
Spatial-temporal reasoning is an important trait to have when you’re designing wireframes, MVPs and digital products. If you’re looking to get help from classical music, researchers suggest listening to Wolfgang Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach or Johann Christian Bach. There’s something about the strength of their notes that resonates with the human brain.
There’s a playlist on Spotify dedicated to Mozart, so start there if you’re interested in putting the theory to the test:
According to researchers, music can do more than make you happy or to improve your creativity. It can actually speed you up or slow you down while you work, too.
In the study “Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance,” a dozen male participants cycled for 25 minutes. While they were left to cycle at their own pace, the tempo of the music changed over the course of the test.
Researchers noticed the following changes in the participants’ performance based on the music tempo increasing by 10% or decreasing by 10%:
|Liked the music||+1.3%||-35.4%|
When the tempo increased, researchers saw an across-the-board increase in terms of performance, perception of how hard they were performing, as well as how much they enjoyed the music.
When the tempo decreased, the metrics all dropped as well. But notice how significant those drops are compared with the up-tempo lift. When the music slowed down, performance, perception and satisfaction dropped by much greater percentages.
Now, this experiment measured what happened while the participants exercised. But is that so far off from the mental gymnastics you do when you design apps and websites?
According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, our neurons will fire in time with a rhythm we like the feeling or sound of. And when our brain syncs up with music, when our body follows along with it.
We’ve all had days where we feel sluggish, distracted or otherwise like we’re working slower than we want to. If we know that faster beats can make our bodies work harder and move more quickly, then why not incorporate fast-paced music when we need it?
There are so many avenues you could go with this. Pop music. Rock beats. Instrumental hip-hop. I’d also recommend movie and video game soundtracks.
There are a bunch of playlists with orchestral and “relaxing” video game music. That’s fine if you’re looking to get in the zone. However, if you want to get the speed benefits, go with something more old school like the “Upbeat Video Game Music” playlist:
As for movie soundtracks, you run into a similar issue as video game soundtracks. Movie soundtracks are often designed to not to be explicitly noticed in movies. They’re just there in the background to set the tone as well as to communicate changes in the storyline.
There are, however, some soundtracks designed to get the viewers’ heart pumping in time with the action on the screen. One of my favorite ones to listen to is the “John Wick Soundtrack”:
The majority of the songs on here are instrumental, so I skip over the few with lyrics if I’m trying to concentrate.
Music in and of itself isn’t going to make you a better designer or developer. That said, if you enjoy listening to music, you may be able to use it to your advantage when optimizing your workflow.
By playing the right kind of music at the right place and time in your workflow, it can release any negative energy you’re holding onto, help you work faster and get the creative juices flowing more freely.
A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.
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