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When it comes to listening while you work, not all songs are helpful.
5 min read
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Early in my career, I wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing headphones at the office. Today, if one of our employees stays inside a pair of noise-canceling airpods for the better part of a day, I don’t think twice about it. Listening to their favorite playlists helps them work better.
A growing body of research supports them, too. One study focusing on Canadian software developers found that listening to music resulted in improved moods, productivity and work quality. It also boosted the developers’s creative problem-solving abilities. One participant explained that the music helped with relaxation and getting around mental blocks. Also, the more developers listened to music, the greater effect it seemed to have.
The researchers confirmed that music listening should be encouraged in the workplace, but with a couple of caveats. Here a few ideas to keep in mind when creating guidelines (or your own playlist) for tuning in at the office.
Related: How Music Affects Your Productivity
Different Music Aids Different Tasks
Upbeat music is a great way to get energized. In fact, research shows that uptempo, pleasing music can boost your mood and motivation. It also increases arousal and alertness. In one survey of surgeons in the UK, half of the respondents said that rock was their music of choice in the operating room, with 17 percent preferring pop music and 11 percent classical.
Before you cue Katy Perry on repeat, keep in mind that all upbeat music isn’t ideal for all projects. Popular music, for example, may aid you in powering through a familiar, repetitive task — like your weekly date with your Google spreadsheets — but it tends to interfere with cognitively demanding tasks like reading comprehension and learning something new.
That’s why Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of This is Your Brain on Music, doesn’t recommend listening while working. According to Levitin, music you love may boost your mood and relax you, but it also takes up some of your attentional capacity, leaving you fewer cognitive resources to complete the task at hand. Levitin does, however, recommend listening to music for 10-15 minutes before you start working to prime your brain for focusing.
When working on a task that demands cognitive resources, silence may be the best option. But if you’re already accustomed to listening, so much so that you can’t concentrate without it, try “low information load” songs, with little variety and complexity and few or no lyrics; think instrumental jazz or classical piano. That way you can listen without losing your ability to concentrate.
Personal Preference Matters
So you love listening to AC/DC while you program, but you find your colleague’s Beethoven symphonies impossibly distracting. It makes sense (no disrespect to Beethoven fans). As it turns out, our musical preferences play an equally important role in creating the conditions to help us thrive in the workplace.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that surgeons’s stress levels decreased and performance improved when music they liked was playing in the background. Music that they didn’t like was somewhat helpful, and no music was least helpful of all.
It may come down to our brain’s reward center, and specifically, the neurotransmitter dopamine. Earlier this year, researchers shared some exciting findings from a study on the role of dopamine in music-evoked pleasure. As they summarized, “Listening to the music you love will make your brain release more dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter for humans’s emotional and cognitive functioning.”
Listening to your favorite jams will quite literally flood your brain with feel-good vibes, and as we all know by now, happier workers are more productive.
Practice Office Etiquette
By now, you’re probably ready to install a new sound system in your office, but don’t ignore your colleagues who still prefer silence. A survey of 1,000 U.S. employees found that 15 percent of respondents didn’t like listening to music while working. Though the majority do enjoy tuning in — 71 percent of respondents reported that they are “much more” or “somewhat more” productive when music is playing — we can’t disregard that 15 percent.
And music can be even more disruptive to the introverts among us. According to University College London psychologists:
“Some people may thrive with music on while others, the extreme introverts, will find it immensely debilitating. This consideration is important for management who wish to optimize the output of their workforce.”
With that in mind, I’d recommend setting some ground rules for listening. For starters, save music for special events, and use headphones. An earbud policy can be helpful, too (one earbud means the listener may be interrupted; two means “do not disturb”). And remember that you can prepare for cognitively demanding work sessions by listening to upbeat music just beforehand , a ritual we’ve embraced whole-heartedly at JotForm. If you drop by our San Francisco headquarters on the morning of a demo day, don’t be surprised if you hear Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in one of our team offices.