Every so often I see someone tweet the question: “Do you listen to music while you work?” These types of posts generally produce a lot of follower engagement because it seems everyone has an opinion on it. It’s a polarising topic, but who’s right? Is there an objective answer? In today’s post, I’m going to take a look at what science can tell us about the topic so far.

The argument for listening to music while working

Have you ever heard of the Mozart effect? In 1993, a study suggested that listening to Mozart before the “spatial-temporal reasoning” portion of an IQ test increased participants’ performance. Since then, newer studies have shown that the improved performance found in the 1993 study was likely due to participants’ improved mood from listening to music.

In 2005, the University of Windsor in Canada did a similar study on a group of 56 software developers. The study showed that music in their working environment positively affected the developers’ productivity.

A more recent, albeit small study has also found increased performance while participants listened to music they preferred compared to the music they didn’t.

So it’s a good thing to listen to music while you work?

Not always! According to the research, several factors affect whether your work will be harmed or helped by listening to music. Among these factors are the volume and speed of the music and also whether or not the music has vocals.

Music with vocals, particularly vocals one can understand seems to be one of the most problematic factors. A 2011 study found that listening to familiar vocal music distracted participants, making it harder to process the verbal information in the task they had to perform.

A similar study on junior high students also showed a decrease in reading comprehension while listening to popular music.

What about noise?

Music appears to be a bit of a mixed bag, but what about other types of noise? Background noise generator apps that simulate the sounds of rain or coffee shops are popular, but do they work?

Unfortunately, again, the answer is “it depends”. When you’re doing creative or repetitive work, it appears that background noise, much like ambient music, may help.

On the flip side, studies have shown that when learning or analyzing highly complicated material, our brains process information significantly more quickly without ambient noise.

In conclusion / TL;DR

Unsurprisingly, this question was never going to have a simple answer. However, there are some important takeaways from what I’ve found:

Listening to music with vocals or music that is loud and fast will almost always lower your performance. If you want to listen to music while working, try to keep it ambient or at a low volume. You can also listen to some background noise provided it’s constant and again, not too loud.

The main thing to remember is that the main reason we might see improved performance from listening to background music is due to an improvement in your mood. This is best achieved by listening to music that you like. If you don’t particularly like the music, rather work in silence if you want to be as productive as possible.

How do you feel about listening to music while you work? I have some personal favorites that I like to listen to and yes, I listened to them while writing this post.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know. Also if you have a great playlist you like to listen to while working, feel free to share it!