We’ve all experienced it: The endless chatter in the row behind you. A colleague talking loudly on the phone as she passes by. Someone nearby tapping his pen distinctively on his desk. A printer humming and spitting out pages of paper.
With the rise in popularity of open-office layouts, many of us have turned to headphones to gain a sense of privacy, block out the rest of the world and just get our work done. There's a benefit to drowning out our workmates: Research shows that music releases the “pleasure chemical” dopamine in your brain, making you happier and more focused. When people are in a good mood—as music often puts us in—they're able to improve their efficiency.
What ends up happening is that the dopamine released distracts people from pain and fatigue, and elevates their mood, which, inevitably, increases their endurance and performance. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “Mozart effect” and is said to increase the listener's creativity. The effect has also been seen in the sports world: Runners are able to run faster when listening to music.
Listening While You Work: The Pros and Cons
Since your brain releases dopamine when your hear a tune you like, music is a perfect tool for getting out of that midday work slump. If you’re taking care of mundane tasks, your mind basically blanks out because it’s not experiencing any stimulation. When you introduce music into the environment, the tune puts new demands on your brain, which hikes up your energy levels in a similar way that going for a walk or drinking a cup of coffee would.
The benefits of listening to music while working exist when people are doing repetitive work, such as inputting information into an Excel sheet, organizing or working on an assembly line. A study published in Applied Ergonomics said that workers responsible for repetitive tasks were more happy, efficient and made fewer errors when listening to music.
"Repetitive tasks" doesn't necessarily mean that the work needs to be simple or easy. It just needs to be something that the worker has done several times before. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that even the very demanding work of surgeons benefited when music was involved, with better performance and fewer errors.
Though there are some benefits to listening to music when you have routine work to do, the same tunes can be distracting when you’re trying to learn a new, complicated skill. A 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Wales Institute found that when it comes to absorbing new information, music was more of a distraction than a focus tool. In the study, participants who listened to music had a more difficult time recalling the series of sounds they were presented with compared to participants who had experienced no background noise.
What Are the Most Productive Sounds?
So how does one get the benefits of listening to music without the distracting downsides? Everyone has specific genres that they prefer—and different sounds can have different effects on your brain. To find out which sounds pump up your productivity levels, you’ll have to try them out. Below are a few good places to start:
Classical. Classical music has long been believed to enhance mental performance and maximize brain efficiency. Coined in a study from the early '90s, the “Mozart effect” suggested that babies who listened to music composed by the composer would become more intelligent. In another study, stroke patients who listened to classical music showed an improvement in visual attention. Research has also found that classical music has also helped study participants recognize images, letters and numbers more quickly compared to those who participated in silence. The study says:
“Human recognition of visual images in the form of Arabic numerals affected by 'noise' showed a reduction in the time needed for recognition and an increase in the probability of making a correct identification in a rich sensory environment.”
Instrumental, Electronica or Ambient. The best part about these types of music is that they can easily become a part of the background. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that an ideal work environment for creative projects or for finding “outside the box” solutions should include a little background noise. (This is exactly why coffee shops contain the perfect amount of noise for most people.)
Sometimes referred to as “chillout” music, instrumental, electronica and ambient are all the kinds of sounds that are able to stimulate your brain, but won’t jump to the forefront of your attention to distract you. Since most of these tunes don't have lyrics, this may be even better for your concentration. Research suggests that lyrics tend to distract listeners because you’re focused on the next words. In a study presented at the International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, researchers found that singing along while driving may slow responses to potential hazards.
Video Game or Film Soundtracks. Most of the music created for video games or films aren’t meant to distract you from playing the game or watching the movie. It’s designed to be background music, which can be exactly what you need to improve your focus in the office.
Foreign Language or World Music. If there's a specific genre you like listening to while working, try to find it in a foreign language and play it while you work. Since you can’t understand what the person is singing, it won’t distract you from what you’re supposed to be doing.
It’s also important to select music that’s the opposite of what you usually listen to for fun. This keeps your brain from associating your music with the memories they may be linked to, which can hurt your ability to focus.
Whether it’s technology, colleagues or your own random thoughts distracting you from work, music can definitely bring your focus back to the task at hand. To find the right music solution for you, test different genres and sounds and see which ones keep you working at your best. Just as different work environments are best for different tasks, keep in mind that different sounds can affect your brain in different ways, so find the ones that manage to relax you, block out distractions and help you dance through your to-do list.
Read more articles on productivity.
Photo: Getty Images