Should you listen to music at work?

Listening to music

Many of us listen to music when working. Some say it helps concentration by blocking out background noise. Others claim it’s a distraction and inhibits performance. So is music good or bad?

Well, it’s not clear. This article based on a study by the University of Wales Institute published in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests recall of information is diminished by listening to music. While another recent post on GigaOM, based on a study by the University of Windsor in Canada, suggests improved performance, lower perceived stress, more curiosity and better mood when listening to music. This CNN article from 2009 even suggests that music can help those with ADD to focus.

You may have heard of the Mozart Effect, which suggests that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. This is something of an urban myth since the effect is temporary (15 minutes) and it only works for certain visual reasoning tasks. It’s based on research from 1993 published in Nature magazine, and spawned a raft of educational material focused on making kids smarter (Little Einsteins anyone?). More recent research has countered even this theory, stating it has no impact on cognitive ability.

Clearly for us lay folk, the matter is nuanced. It seems the impact of music varies depending on the task being assessed – information recall, reasoning or other cognitive tasks like learning. It may also depend on personality type (extrovert/introvert), whether you are used to listening to music or not, and of course the type of music.

Listening to upbeat and fast music will probably make you more agitated, while relaxed music will de-stress you. There may be times when each is appropriate at work. According to research by the University of Toledo, a big factor in terms of concentration is that the music should be instrumental. Songs with lyrics demand your attention at some level, even if you know the words. Given our brains are unable to multi-task this will slow your performance since your brain is processing the lyrics and not the work in hand. It’s not dissimilar to talking to someone on your cell phone while driving.

Given scientists seem to disagree, my advice would be to listen to music only when you need to minimize distractions in your environment (in an open plan office, at a cafe) for a high-focus activity. However, make sure it’s instrumental or classical music at a low volume so you can hear the phone or realize when someone is calling your name. When at the office make sure the earphones are not a default since you miss a lot of office culture if you are constantly plugged-in. Free streaming music sites like Pandora and the prevalence of iTunes, have lead to an increase in music at work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for performance, but until the science is proven, use it as a tool for specific activities and situations, not universally.