Way back to the days when yodellers serenaded sheep herders in the Swiss Alps, it’s been understood that music enhances the experience of work.
No wonder science has gone to town on the stuff, reeling off study after study linking tunes with toil. In one, IT specialists confirmed that folks who listened to music completed their tasks quicker and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.
But which type? Wagner? Jean-Pierre Rampal? Nickelback?
Depends what you’re doing.
The so-called Mozart Effect, uncovered by researchers at the University of California-Irvine in 1993, concluded that listening to Mozart heightens “abstract reasoning ability.” So if you’re spending the afternoon constructing retail planograms, throw Symphony No. 9 in C Major (songs in major keys boost productivity more than songs in minor keys) into your Beatz.
A series of experiments identify a positive relationship between playing background music during repetitive work and your efficiency with that work. The trick with this scenario is not to lose speed. So counter that tendency with upbeat tunes, revealed to boost both efficiency in mood. That means loading Wake Me Up Before you Go Go onto your playlist before settling in to sex chickens.
If you need to concentrate, scientists recommend keeping your music familiar. New music is surprising, and you can’t help but listen in when you don’t know what’s coming next (will Drake give a shoutout to the Six?)—not conducive to focus. Better to stick with stuff you know so your ear adventures don’t become your primary focus.
When compiling a work playlist designed to help you hone in on a task, remember the value of nature’s music. “Natural” sounds can enhance cognitive functioning and increase your satisfaction levels with every crossed-off to-do. So when you’re hunkering down for a focused session of number-crunching, invite the sounds of thundering summer storms and twittering cardinals into your ears. It’ll make your spreadsheet sing.
A few years back, researchers at Middle Tennessee State University discovered that students who listened to sedative music during a test scored higher than classmates who listened to lyrical music. Sedative music has a gentle melody that doesn’t hop around in pitch, dynamics or rhythm and sustains a flow that duplicates your resting heart rate (fast-tempo tunes of 120-130 beats per minute increase anxiety; slow-tempo music of 50-60 beats per minute has the opposite effect). It also has no lyrics to set your thoughts adrift on emotional seas (no one wants tears on their white papers).
Feeling overwhelmed or underwhelmed at your desk? Kickstart your psyche with jumpy tunes. Researchers at McGill discovered that our brains are hard-wired to produce feel-good chemicals when we listen to music that delights us. Think “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas.
If you’re charged with a creative task, do it in the company of mid-volume “ambient music.” Music played at a moderate volume, say the researchers, can get creative juices flowing, but too much noise has the opposite effect. A study led by Yamaguchi University concluded that, “When carrying out intellectual activities involving memory or arithmetic tasks, it is a common experience for noise to cause an increased psychological impression of ‘annoyance,’ leading to a decline in performance.” So if you’re crafting a PowerPoint, steer clear of Def Leppard and go James Taylor instead.
Music research is wide-ranging and contentious and copious. What you listen to at work, whether you’re producing an expense report, untangling an IT glitch or brainstorming for next week’s retreat (or even if you listen to anything at all), is up to you. Create your on-the-job playlist mindfully.