The late philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, once said, “without music, life would be a mistake.” This rings true for most of us.
Whether we listened to sad music after a painful breakup or upbeat music on our graduation day, music has played a significant role in our most memorable life events.
Memories aside, music also influences our mental performance and ability to get things done.
Here’s the science of how music affects your productivity, and how to use it to your advantage.
Music Improves Your Mood
When you listen to music you enjoy, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good, and reduces stress and anxiety. 1
For example, in one study within the meta-analysis of 400 studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers studied the effects of music on patients who were due to undergo surgery.
Patients were told to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs, and then the researchers tracked the changes in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
At the end of the study, the researchers discovered that the patients who listened to music experienced less anxiety and lower cortisol levels than patients who took anti-anxiety drugs.
Music has the power to improve our mood, which in turn could improve our ability to focus and concentrate on the task at hand.
Lyrics Reduce Mental Performance
Not all music is equal. Studies on background music in the work environment have shown that music with lyrics reduce our mental performance at work, whilst instrumental music could boost our productivity.
In addition, research from Applied Acoustics has shown that performance is reduced with increased speech intelligibility. In layman’s terms, the more voices we can hear whilst working—including lyrics—the lower our productivity.
Music Improves Physical Performance
Listening to motivational music whilst exercising can help to reduce boredom and improve the quality of your workouts.
According to a study led by sports psychologist, Karageorghis, music improves physical performance by increasing capacity to exercise longer and harder, and delaying fatigue.
During my personal experiments, I’ve discovered that music helps to significantly increase the intensity, speed and duration of my workouts.
It alters my mood on the days when I don’t feel like exercising, and has helped me to stick my exercise habit of working out five days a week.
Music Makes Repetitive Tasks More Pleasurable
According to Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, music can make repetitive tasks more pleasurable, and increase your concentration with the task.
For example, one study discovered that music could improve the performance of surgeons who take on repetitive nonsurgical laboratory tasks.
Music Familiarity Is Best for Focus
Various studies have discovered that certain regions in our brain—which evoke strong emotions and improve concentration—are more active when we listen to familiar rather than unfamiliar music.
Plus, when we listen to unfamiliar music we’re more likely to lose focus, whilst adjusting to the new sound.
Music Affects Introverts and Extroverts Differently
A study published in the Applied Cognitive Psychology Journal looked at the distracting effects of music on introverts’ and extraverts’ performance on various cognitive tasks.
During the study, 10 introverts and extraverts were given two tests—a memory test that required immediate and delayed recall, and a reading comprehension test.The participants were required to complete the tests whilst either being exposed to pop music, or in silence.
At the end of the study, the researchers discovered that there was a detrimental effect on immediate recall on the memory test for both groups, whilst music was played.
However, after a 6-minute interval the introverts who had memorized the objects performed significantly worse in recall than the extraverts in the same condition.
In addition, the introverts who completed a reading comprehension task when the music was played also performed significantly worse than the introverts.
Listening to Music Between Tasks Could Boost Productivity
Whilst there may be detrimental effects of listening to music whilst working, listening to music in-between tasks can boost your mental performance.
For example, a study published in the Psychology of Music, showed that music in-between tasks could boost student academic performance and the ability to concentrate on a task for long periods of time.
If you’d like to get the best of both worlds, you could work in silence and periodically step away to listen to music, before returning back to work.
What Type of Music Should You Listen To?
As we’ve discussed, the type of music you should listen to for improved productivity depends on a few factors, which include:
- How many lyrics are in the song.
- How familiar you are with the song.
- How repetitive the task is that you’re going to listen to music with.
- Whether you are engaging in a mental or physical activity.
For example, if you’re about to read a lengthy and comprehensive document, you’re probably better off listening to ambient or classical music, than rock or pop music. And vice versa, if you’re about to go for a run.
Personally, what works for me is a music mix of jazz, lofi hip hop and neo soul instrumentals. My top 5 favorite artists when it comes to music whilst reading, studying or writing are (in no particular order):
- Chet baker (genre: Jazz)
- Freddie Joachim (genre: Instrumental hip hop, jazz, and soul)
- Tom Misch (genre: Alternative/Indie)
- Nujabes (genre: Japanese hip hop)
- J Dilla (genre: Instrumental hip hop)
Ultimately, you’d have to experiment with different types of music in different conditions, to find what works best for your productivity.
1. Altenmüller, E., & Schlaug, G. (2012). Music, brain, and health: Exploring biological foundations of music’s health effects
2. Shih YN et al (2012). Background music: effects on attention performance.
3. Chanda, Mona Lisa & J Levitin, Daniel. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in cognitive sciences. 17. 179-93. 10.1016/j.tics.2013.02.007.
4. Jahncke, Helena & Hongisto, Valtteri & Virjonen, Petra. (2012). Cognitive performance during irrelevant speech: Effects of speech intelligibility and office-task characteristics. Applied Acoustics. 74. 10.1016/j.apacoust.2012.08.007.
5. Karageorghis, C.I., Priest, D.L., Williams, L.S., Hirani, R.M., Lannon, K.M., & Bates, B.J. (2010). Ergogenic and psychological effects of synchronous music during circuit-type exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(6), 551-559.
6. Allen K, Blascovich J. Effects of Music on Cardiovascular Reactivity Among Surgeons. JAMA. 1994;272(11):882–884. doi:10.1001/jama.1994.03520110062030
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8. Schellenberg, E & Nakata, Takayuki & Hunter, Patrick & Tamoto, Sachiko. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music. 35. 5-19. 10.1177/0305735607068885.