Music is regarded as one of the triumphs of human creativity. But does music itself help one to create?

It’s a question worth asking, since music has increasingly become a part of the modern-day workplace. As Sean Rose noted, music has a strange temporal permanence; as art decorates space, so does music decorate time.

With so much of our time being spent at work, and so much of our work being done at computers, music has become inseparable from our day-to-day tasks—a way to “optimize the boring” while looking at screens.

To better understand music and productivity, let’s look at the research.

Music Makes Repetitive Tasks More Enjoyable

Music’s effectiveness is dependent on how “immersive” a task is, referring to the creative demand of the work.

When a task is clearly defined and repetitive in nature, research suggests that music is consistently helpful.

A series of experiments has investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry.

Assembly line workers showed signs of increased happiness and efficiency while listening to music, for example.

More modern studies would argue that it isn’t the music itself, but rather the improved mood your favorite music brings that is the source of this bump in productivity.

Music with a dissonant tone was found to have no impact to productivity, while music in the major mode, or key, had better results: “Subjects hearing BGM (background music) achieved greater productivity when BGM was in the major mode.”

In a Noisy Workplace, Music Is An Escape

While the open-office debate rages on, one point has become clear: a noisy workplace can halt personal productivity in its tracks.

Perhaps a pair of headphones may not be as distracting as some companies think:

Dr. Lesiuk’s research focuses on how music affects workplace performance. In one study involving information technology specialists, she found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.

Again, we see improved mood as the main argument made.

While the open space encourages more collaboration, the noise can be too much for some people to handle when engaging in deep work. If there is no physical escape—such as a private room—then a pair of headphones may be the best alternative.

Ambient Noise Is The Creative Sweet Spot

For those who do enjoy listening to music during creative sessions, an atmospheric presence seems to work best.

Researchers have shown that a moderate noise level can get creative juices flowing, but the line is easily crossed; loud noises made it incredibly difficult to concentrate. Bellowing basses and screeching synths will do you more harm than good when engaging in deep work.

A 2015 study found that when it came to sound-masking with ambient noise, “natural” sounds, such as waves at a beach, also improved subjects’ ability to concentrate.

Whether deliberately created or naturally occurring, a soft background noise is what you should aim for.

Lyrics Are Often Too Distracting

For low-immersion or physical tasks, music with lyrics can offer huge benefits. But for intensive work, lyrics are especially destructive for focus.

Research shows that “intelligible” chatter—talking that can be clearly heard and understood—is what makes for a distracting environment. Shifting focus to figure out what someone else is saying is the reason why speech is often considered the most troublesome element of a noisy office; in one study, 48% of participants listed intelligible talking as the sound which distracted them the most.

Trying to engage in language-related tasks—such as writing—while listening to lyrics would be akin to holding a conversation while another person talks over you… while also strumming a guitar. Lyrics are often a no-go.

Lyrics might not have the same effect on creative tasks that don’t directly deal with “verbal architecture.” This study that looked at software developers suggested that music with lyrics helped their output while working.

Familiarity Is Best For Focus

It may be beneficial to listen to music you are familiar with if you need to intensely focus for a project.

The reason being is that new music is surprising; since you don’t know what to expect, you are inclined to listen closely to see what comes next.

With familiar music, you know what lies ahead. Paying attention requires less focus.

While the “journey” of new music can be beneficial in other ways, it’s best to tread a familiar path if you are using music to get things done.

Music for Immersive Tasks: What Works?

Although “music that you like” should be given preference, most people have a fairly wide range of tastes, so using a certain type of music just for work isn’t out of the question.

Below we’ll cover a few proven styles, why they work, and where you can find more examples.

Classical music (Baroque)

Why it works

Lacking in lyrics and often considered the finest form of the craft, classical music is a popular choice. One study made it clear that Baroque-period tunes have a measurable impact on productivity.

However, not all classical music is created equal—the dramatic twists and turns of Toccata & Fugue in D minor might not be as appropriate as the more delicate sounds of Für Elise.

Where to Listen

Two very long collections below, there are obviously many, others.

Electronic music

Why it works

Ambient electronica tends to fit our need for present but unobtrusive. As a genre it’s repetitive, but in a good way.

Unlike the ups and downs of a symphonic piece, there are quite a few producers who aim to create “soundscapes” (anyone remember Gabe from The Office?), which emphasize a few select melodies that build on each other.

The song’s focus can help your focus, as the repeating tones won’t be disruptive.

Where to listen

Two quick examples from Vanilla and Ambinate.

Video-game music

Why it works

Game composers know that the ideal music for many situations is music that enhances the experience while not distracting the player.

One of the most popular suggestions of all time on Reddit for “music that helps with concentration” was the SimCity soundtrack, which makes perfect sense. Maxis designed the music to be enjoyable, but subdued enough that it wouldn’t zap focus from the many things you needed to do to keep your city running.

Where to listen

I grabbed two quick examples from Skyrim and SimCity 5.

“Everything else”

Why it works

Anything soft enough to not divert attention and focus is a possibility for your potential playlist—different strokes for different folks.

If vocals don’t bug you during work, give them a go.

Jazz, hip-hop, indie rock, blues, and everything else is up for grabs, remembering that “ambient” is the word of the day for engrossing work.

Where to listen

I really enjoy oldies for work, as they often have a softer tone.

No music (ambient noise)

If you’ve had enough of these kids and their “newfangled dub steps,” fear not—sometimes the sweet sound of silence is the most fitting of all.

But for many people, total silence is off-putting. There are two useful tools you can use to fix this:

  • SimplyNoise — Playing a low pitch white noise in the background can be a lifesaver if something in your environment is being uncontrollably loud (such as construction work).
  • RainyMood — Work like it’s drizzling outside even when it’s 90° F and the sun is shining. This plays a loop of a mild storm; turn on a fireplace video and you can get seriously cozy.

The environment you create impacts the behavior you get. When deciding what sounds will fill your workday, get deliberate: test and tweak until you find the perfect harmony. The ability to do consistently great work is what’s at stake, so think before you press play.

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Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.