Benefits of listening to music while you work

May 22, 2017

Listening to the right music while working has been a tremendous productivity booster for me over the past few years. I have found myself more focused, energized, and optimistic—which allows me to get more done—and keeps me feeling relaxed and present.

While I understand there are musical anhedonics (people who are completely unaffected by music), a 2014 study shows that “the vast majority of human populations find [music] pleasurable.” (Mas-Herrero et al., Current Biology)

Do you listen to music while you work?

I had never really thought about this until I interviewed filmmaker Ryan Craig for a college paper. He told me that when he writes, he listens to loud music. I couldn’t believe this. I wondered if he would “accidentally” write the lyrics of a song instead of what he was thinking. It turned out that was not an issue for him. Instead, it helped to “put him in the zone” to get words on the page.

I also found out that Jony Ive (the designer of the iPod, iPhone, and Mac) listens to loud techno-music while he works. So I decided to give it a shot.

Music improves focus

Music first started making a positive impact on my work when I was writing my honors thesis for my undergrad degree. I needed to enter deep work, so I played Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago on repeat. I found that I could listen to that record indefinitely without getting sick of it. And, since I can’t understand half the lyrics without looking them up, I didn’t get mixed up with the singing.

According to Focus at Will,

Scientists have discovered that depending on your personality type, there is a specific type of “music” that when engineered just right, puts your brain into a “flow state” making you hyper-focused and exponentially more productive.

This is definitely true for me. (And by implication, seems to be working for billionaire Jony Ive!)

Your brain in a flow state

In Daniel Pink’s Johnny Bunko, the main character is introduced to the idea of “flow” in the workplace and is presented with a definition:

Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. (Wikipedia)

I don’t know about you, but FLOW and THE ZONE are very real things. When they’re not present, I’m not myself. I take creating FLOW very seriously, to the point where I’ll go to extreme measures and buy really nice stuff to ensure my environment is just right.

Why do I listen to music while I work?

  1. To focus. I’ve use specific songs and albums so when I hear the first few bars, I know it’s time to get to work.

  2. To measure time. Most of the time while working, I’ll listen to one album on repeat. When I hear the first song again, I know that about 40-60 minutes has passed. It’s kind of like Peter Bregman’s hourly beep.

  3. Set an atmosphere. If I am feeling stressed, the right music can often change my mood. I keep a few relaxing albums ready to play so that when I’m feeling anxious, I can calm down.

Strategically choosing music for blocks of your day can help to put you in the right frame of mind while working. What follows is a list of what I listen to throughout the day.

Early morning music 5:00am – 8:30am

  1. Nat King Cole – The Piano Style of Nat King Cole I love Nat King Cole’s voice, but his piano playing is just as distinctive and soulful. This record is relaxing, positive, and sets an optimistic tone for the day.

  2. Vince Guaraldi – The Very Best Of Vince Guaraldi Guaraldi is one of my favorite musicians. “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” is one of the best to listen to while I’m making breakfast and coffee.

  3. Larry Carlton – Larry Carlton This album rocks. It’s like instrumental Steely Dan. Complex, yet smooth.

Morning music – 9:00am

  1. Jason Mraz – Yes! Hope and I listened to this record a lot while we were away for our honeymoon in Hawaii. I love listening to it because it brings back warm, fun memories. It’s positive, silly, and authentic.

  2. Lake Street Dive – Side Pony I found this artist because their song “You Go Down Smooth” is used to sell BOSE speakers (you might hear it if you test a speaker out at Target). They are also excellent live. This song (Gawdawful Things) is my “work jam.” I’m also obsessed with this song.

  3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver For rainy, cold mornings, I sometimes play Bon Iver. It depends on what kind of work I’m doing. If I’m writing, I like to listen to this because the lyrics are harder to understand.

Afternoon music 12:00pm

  1. John Mayer – Continuum Every song on this album has a special memory for me. The overall mood of the record is uptempo and positive. It helps me push through the afternoon.

  2. Beatles – Revolver So many great songs on this one, too. Again, you’ll notice the trend: uptempo, pushing forward, energetic.

  3. Raelee Nikole – Answers I stumbled on this artist on Spotify. She has a warm voice and a positive spirit. In the afternoon when I start feeling sluggish, this record keeps me flowing.

Maybe in another post, I’ll talk about the differences of playing music through headphones vs loudspeakers. As a sneak peek, I sometimes have a better listening experience when the speaker is in a different room and I’m listening to the “essence” of the music traveling to where I’m sitting. And in another post, I might discuss how the volume of sound contributes to productivity. Until then, I hope you found this useful and can maybe try experimenting with different styles of music in your workplace.

Do you listen to music while you work? Why or why not?

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