The environment you create impacts the behaviour you get. When deciding what sounds will fill your workday, get deliberate: test and tweak until you find the perfect harmony. The ability to do consistently great work is what’s at stake, so think before you press play.
Many ancient Greeks were known to have used harmonics, through music, to cure disease. Pythagoras himself cured many ailments of the spirit, body and mind using music. In his university at Crotona it was customary for the Pythagoreans to open and close the day with songs — those in the morning calculated to clear the mind from sleep and inspire the activities of the day; those in the evening were of modes soothing, relaxing and conducive to rest.
“Having once established music as an exact science, Pythagoras applied his newly found law of harmonic intervals to all the phenomena of nature, even going so far as to demonstrate the harmonic relationship of the planets, constellations, and elements to each other. Pythagoras concluded that the laws of music were determined, not by the sense perceptions of the human body, but by reason and mathematics. Then he totally recognised the profound effect of music on the senses and emotions, he did not hesitate to use music to influence the mind and the body with what he termed, “musical medicine.”
Plato depreciated the notion that music was intended solely to create cheerful and agreeable emotions, maintaining rather “it should evoke a love of all that is noble, a rejection of all that is mean, and that nothing could be more strongly influence person’s innermost feelings and melody, than music and rhythm.”
The Greek initiates also recognised a fundamental relationship between the individual, the heavens, and music. They used the seven sacred vowels and words became sacred. Pythagoreans believed that “everything which existed had a voice and all creatures were eternally singing the praise of the creator. Man fails to hear these divine melodies because he is enmeshed in the illusion of material existence (mind). When he liberates himself from the bondage of the lower world with its sense limitations, the music of the spheres will again be audible as it was in the golden age. When the human soul regains its true state it will not only hear the celestial choir but will also join with it in an everlasting anthem of praise to that eternal good.”
Music is regarded as one of the triumphs of human creativity. But does music itself help one to create?
It’s a question worth asking, since music has increasingly become a part of the modern-day workplace. Music has a strange temporal permanence; as art decorates space, so does music decorate time.
With so much of our time being spent at work, and so much of our work being done at computers, music has become inseparable from our day-to-day tasks–a way to “optimise the boring” while looking at screens.
To better understand music and productivity, let’s look at the research.
Music makes repetitive tasks more enjoyable.
Music’s effectiveness is dependent on how “immersive” a task is, referring to the creative demand of the work.
When a task is clearly defined and repetitive in nature, research from Applied Ergonomics suggests music is consistently helpful.
A series of experiments has investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry.
Assembly line workers showed signs of increased happiness and efficiency while listening to music, for example.
More modern studies from Dr. Teresa Lesiuk would argue that it isn’t the music itself, but rather the improved mood your favourite music brings that is the source of this bump in productivity.
Music with a dissonant tone was found to have no impact to productivity, while music in the major mode, or key, had better results: “Subjects hearing BGM (background music) achieved greater productivity when BGM was in the major mode.”
In a noisy workplace, music is an escape.
While the open-office debate rages on, one point has become clear: a noisy workplace can halt personal productivity in its tracks.
Perhaps a pair of headphones may not be as distracting as some companies think, says Dr. Lesiuk, whose research focuses on how music affects workplace performance. In one study involving information technology specialists, she found those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.
Again, we see improved mood as the main argument made.
While the open space encourages more collaboration, the noise can be too much for some people to handle when engaging in deep work. If there is no physical escape–such as a private room–then a pair of headphones may be the best alternative.
Ambient noise is the creative sweet spot.
For those who do enjoy listening to music during creative sessions, an atmospheric presence seems to work best.
A study in the Journal of Consumer Research has shown that a moderate noise level can get creative juices flowing, but the line is easily crossed; loud noises made it incredibly difficult to concentrate. Bellowing basses and screeching synths will do you more harm than good when engaging in deep work.
A 2015 study from the Acoustical Society of America found that when it came to sound-masking with ambient noise, “natural” sounds, such as waves at a beach, also improved subjects’ ability to concentrate. Whether deliberately created or naturally occurring, a soft background noise is what you should aim for.
Lyrics are often too distracting.
For low-immersion or physical tasks, music with lyrics can offer huge benefits. But for intensive work, lyrics are especially destructive for focus.
Research from Applied Acoustics shows “intelligible” chatter–talking that can be clearly heard and understood–is what makes for a distracting environment. Shifting focus to figure out what someone else is saying is the reason speech is often considered the most troublesome element of a noisy office; in one study, 48 percent of participants listed intelligible talking as the sound that distracted them the most.
Trying to engage in language-related tasks–such as writing–while listening to lyrics would be akin to holding a conversation while another person talks over you… while also strumming a guitar. Lyrics are often a no-go.
Lyrics might not have the same effect on creative tasks that don’t directly deal with “verbal architecture.” A 2005 study lead by Dr. Lesiuk that looked at software developers suggested music with lyrics helped their output while working.
Familiarity is best for focus.
It may be beneficial to listen to music you are familiar with if you need to intensely focus for a project.
New music is surprising; since you don’t know what to expect, you are inclined to listen closely to see what comes next. With familiar music, you know what lies ahead. Paying attention requires less focus.
While the “journey” of new music can be beneficial in other ways, it’s best to tread a familiar path if you are using music to get things done.
Music for immersive tasks: what works?
Although “music that you like” should be given preference, most people have a fairly wide range of tastes, so using a certain type of music just for work isn’t out of the question.
Below we’ll cover a few proven styles, why they work, and where you can find more examples.
Why it works:
Lacking in lyrics and often considered the finest form of the craft, classical music is a popular choice. A 2009 study from the American Roentgen Ray Society concluded Baroque-period tunes have a measurable impact on productivity.
However, not all classical music is created equal–the dramatic twists and turns of Toccata & Fugue in D minor might not be as appropriate as the more delicate sounds of Fr Elise.
Where to listen:
• Reddit thread, “I’m new to classical music, where should I begin?”
• Freely licensed files on Wikipedia
• Reddit’s r/ Baroque music
• Classical music for exams on Spotify
• Pandora’s Baroque station