The role of music in the workplace: can it boost productivity?

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK
13 September 2018

We come across music everywhere, and often we listen to it when we’re doing something else; whether that’s driving, shopping, exercising, walking, or cleaning. Recently music has become common in the workplace too, with one estimate that people on average listen to music for one third of their working week. Some people swear by it, saying it makes them more productive. But what effect does music really have on our work?

The evidence

There hasn’t been much research in this area, but there’s some evidence that under the right circumstances, music can be beneficial for productivity and wellbeing in the workplace. This is because listening to music stimulates positive emotions and improves our mood, and we’re much more likely to concentrate well when we’re feeling happy and energised. (As long as the listener likes the choice of music, that is!)

In the same way, music might also improve other work-related outcomes such as efficiency. It could also help to maintain motivation with the more repetitive tasks, meaning that we persevere for longer than we otherwise might have. Finally, music can help to reduce feelings of stress at work.

The downside to listening to music at work is that we might be asking too much of our brains, so our task execution may suffer. When we carry out two tasks at the same time – as we do when listening to music in the background to another task – we’re not actually multi-tasking, but ‘task-switching’. That is, our attention switches very quickly from one task (listening to music) to the other (writing an email), going back and forth between the two. This leaves us more prone to making errors – you might not notice a few spelling mistakes until you read through your email a second or third time.

The X factors: what makes the difference with music and productivity?

Importantly, it is not as simple as listening to music, feeling happier and being more productive at work. The positive effects of music can depend on a whole host of factors:

Music factors

  • The presence of lyrics – Music with lyrics might make it harder to do language-based tasks at the same time, so we’re slower because of the costs of task-switching.
  • The genre and rhythm – The research is mixed and often it depends on personal preference, but some evidence suggests that high-intensity genre’s like hip-hop can be more distracting than calmer genres such as classical music. Some people find that rather than music, listening to white noise or the sounds of nature such as rain, are helpful for concentration.
  • The volume – Having music playing across the whole office is unlikely to please everyone, so a moderate volume through personal headphones is best. Too quiet or too loud can be distracting, for our own concentration or the colleagues around us.

Task factors

  • The cognitive demands of the task at hand (ie how difficult it is) – Music is least helpful when we’re learning new information or when completing complex, effortful tasks. Finding somewhere quiet might be best.

People factors

  • Familiarity with the music – Our brains don’t need to devote much attention to processing familiar music, so it’s less distracting than unfamiliar music.
  • Our music taste – We’re more likely to work better listening to music that we like compared with artists or songs we find annoying; but listening to our absolute favourite tunes can be distracting too.
  • Personality types – Our position on the spectrum of introvert, extrovert or ambivert, determines where we get our energy from – that is whether it’s from internal sources, external, or a mixture of the two. This may influence how much music affects our concentration levels.

So under the right circumstances, for some people music can be good for productivity, whereas for others it can be a distraction and is disruptive. It’s all down to the individual! The tips below might help you to find out what works best for you.

Tips to get a productivity boost from music at work

Use it to manage your surroundings

With the rise in open-plan offices – good for collaboration but bad for noise control – our productivity, ability to pay attention and workplace environment satisfaction are suffering. With little privacy and lots of disruption and noise, we can quickly feel irritated and stressed by our surroundings if we can’t maintain our focus. Plugging in to music can be a good way to manage this unpredictable background noise, as well as generating some personal space. Sometimes the physical act of putting on headphones is enough to do this and boost our focus, as it creates a mental barrier between us and the surroundings – even if we’re not actually listening to anything! It also gives off a clear ‘do not disturb’ signal to others. If the office is too quiet, music can also be a good companion and help to maintain motivation.

Work out where you get you energy from

If you’re more extroverted, you’re likely to gain energy from external stimuli like music, and may work more productively with high-volume, high-energy tunes. But if you’re an introvert, you might find that music is an interruption. You’ll probably concentrate better in quieter places, with music without lyrics, or a constant low-level noise like white noise. Ambiverts – those who lie somewhere in the middle, which is actually the majority of us – are likely to alternate depending on our mood and the task.

Match the music to the demands of the task

If you’re using your phone or computer to listen to music, find a playlist or album that matches the type of thinking you need to do.

  • Need to get something done quickly? Choose something energetic with a fast-paced but steady beat.
  • If you’re analysing a complicated report, or need to keep your calm before a presentation, soothing piano music, or silence, might be better.
  • To boost inspiration when you need to be creative, some research suggests happy music might be the best option.
  • If you’re preparing for a challenging conversation or meeting, get pumped up with some motivational tunes.
  • Want to feel confident and improve your frame of mind? Listen to songs that contain positive, catchy lyrics.

These are just suggestions; everyone will be different, so work out which music works best for you and in which situation. Remember that constantly selecting songs is going to disrupt your concentration, so try to choose an appropriate playlist or album to play in the background, rather than letting it be your main focus.

Have control and autonomy over music listening

The value of music at work is greatest when we have complete control over when we listen to music and what we listen to. What works for one person isn’t likely to work for everyone, so figure out what works best for you.

Happy listening!

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Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lauren Gordon
Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK

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