Have you ever wondered how music can have such a profound effect on how you work? That feeling of being in the zone where all the dots connect effortlessly, and you feel unstoppable…. Or when listening to music feels like it’s creating an uphill battle while you’re trying to complete that all important task?
Any given day you will see me powering away working with my headphones on, little would you know I’m listening to Garfield Cool Cat or Aqua. Yeah I admit it, I’m a 31 year old male who still listens to Aqua, but I’m only letting you know because I’m writing this blog. Laugh at me all you want, but that’s what makes me productive (I’m devastated I missed their recent tour)!
Personally I can’t fathom the thought of working without music, it’s been such an integral part of my work regime for so long, I can remember listening to music while I was working as far back as when I was 14 years old. Listening to the right music (which I have tweaked over time) helps me focus, work faster, and gets me motivated and happy.
I’ve always wondered why I’m attracted to my specific taste in music when working. People who know me well, know about my “stranger” than normal music preferences, and many people don’t even know the genre of the music I listen to (EuroDance, 90s Dance, and Happy Hardcore). I usually immerse myself in my headphones (HD-25s are the best pair I’ve used), and listen to this music for a lot of tasks.
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Why do we love music?
Music triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as the “pleasure chemical”. Dopamine is part of the pleasure-reward system and is our brains motivation molecule.
That’s the same high you get from eating food you love, having an orgasm, or runners high. The amount of dopamine released is determined by the element of surprise, so when listening to a new song that you love means more dopamine is released.
Music is part of our evolution as the human race, meant to keep us alive, as Jonathan Berger, PhD, explains: listening to music is the way the brain sharpens it’s ability to anticipate events, and sustain attention.
When at a music performance you’ve loved, have you felt more connected with everyone else around you at the performance? Listening to music with others develops group identity and stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin, aka. the trust/moral molecule, this helps us bond with and trust others.
Music and Productivity:
Studies have shown that music can help improve performance on repetitive tasks, improve your mood (being happier while you work improves your productivity). Music can block out sounds from a noisy/distracting work environment, and help concentrate on the task at hand.
However I know music doesn’t always work for everyone, a close friend of mine can’t listen to music or she will get distracted and can’t concentrate on what she’s working on. So, what really makes or breaks your productivity while listening to music? It really depends on which music you listen to, and the individual.
There have been a huge number of studies completed over many years on music and it’s impact on focus, cognition, and mental performance – with many different outcomes and learnings. There are even companies dedicated to helping you improve your productivity with music (see the end of the article), it’s that well studied!
Below are six tips to help you find the music which best works for you.
6 Tips To Supercharge Your Productivity With Music:
1. Enjoy the music you’re listening to
This may sound obvious, but you need to like the music you’re listening to. Doesn’t matter what you do, if you don’t like the music you’re listening to then none of the following will help! Listening to music you love improves your mood, which leads to improved productivity.
Listening to your favourite song alters the connectivity between auditory brain areas and the hippocampus, a region responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation – whether it as broad as Eminem, Beethoven, Nirvana, or another song.
2. Listen to music you’ve listened to before
If you’re listening to music while working, you’re best to use a playlist of music you already know to maximise your productivity.
Listening to a new song you love and haven’t heard before increases the amount of dopamine released in your brain. When more dopamine is released your focus can drift and interest wanes, as you focus on the music rather than you work. This is especially the case when listening to a new song you love that also includes lyrics.
3. Take musical breaks or stop listening to music altogether (when learning something new)
Just like you should take regular breaks while working to ensure you remain productive, the same should be done with music. A 5 minute break every 30-60 minutes, or changing the music you’re listening to can increase productivity.
Music has been shown to improve performance on repetitive tasks, however if you’re learning something new (or other types of work that aren’t repetitive such as strategy related thinking) you’re better off with silence. Listening to music has been shown to impair your performance on complex cognitive tasks and decrease the ability to recall when learning something new .
4. Avoid or limit vocals
Music with vocals can pull your focus from your work to the song you are listening to, to maximise focus, select songs with few or no vocals.
5. Choose music that makes you feel like doing stuff
This comes down to performance preference, the key here is selecting music that makes you feel happy, motivated, and feel like actually working. Different kinds of music can help with different tasks, volume, intensity, and tempo/beat all have an impact.
For example if you require extreme focus, then something with no lyrics, and little to no variety is more suitable.
6. Prepare a playlist that’s ready to go without having to think about it
This is a personal preference of mine – when I get into the zone and I’m on a roll, the last thing I want to do to interrupt this to try and figure out the next song to play. So have a playlist ready, or in my case I have some online radio stations (di.fm) I listen to regularly.
Having trouble figuring out what works for you or want to save on the legwork? Here a few pre-configured playlists:
- Electronic Study Music on Spotify (link)
- Video Game Soundtracks. Sounds & music in games are designed to keep you focused, and research has shown those who mute the sound during game play perform worse than those that don’t. (Final Fantasy 8, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2, Call of Duty Black Ops – Zombies Soundtrack, Command and Conquer: Generals, Mass Effect 1 – 2 – 3, Video Game Theme Compilation)
- Movie Soundtracks (The Social Network, Limitless [we’re fans of the movie ourselves!], Inception, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman Begins, Sherlock Holmes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Valkyrie, Band of Brothers, Gladiator, Anything Hans Zimmer, Anything Trent Reznor). Or check out Cinemix for OSTs only.
- Nature Sounds (here)
- Pump Up Songs – listening to “empowering” songs can give you a hit of dopamine, and could be just what you need. Here are a few options: answering emails, tight deadlines, for a slow morning, or for mindless work.
- Instrumental Songs on Spotify (link)
- Classical music – one of the most cited studies relating to music and productivity, the “Mozart Effect”. Think this will work for you? Here is a handy Spotify classical playlist, or Beethoven, or Johann Sebastian Bach.
Don’t have the time to figure out what works for you?
If following the steps above don’t result in you can’t find something that works for you above, then there are services out there which have built services around specifically using music to improve your performance, and they’ve done this using science backed research (so you don’t have to)
1. Focus@Will – Scientifically optimised music to help you focus, designed to increase focus, reduce your distractions, and work at optimal performance.
2. Brain.fm – AI (artificial intelligence) generated music for focus, relaxation, motivation, and sleeping. Braim.fm builds a unique psych profile, and then tracks your performance each week and adjusts according to your actual performance.
3. Coffitivity – Coffitivity recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to boost your creativity and help you work better.
Do you have your own music productivity hacks? Please share!