Music and Productivity: All About Context

Must find the right song for the task at hand...

Last week Jonathan Spira explored the possibility of music being a distracting influence on knowledge workers. Although there is some truth to that, music is a topic that engenders such passion that getting knowledge workers (or anyone) to give it up would almost surely incite rebellion. A more nuanced approach is to find what works for the specific individual.

Music’s relationship to productivity is extremely complex and varies based on context. Factors such as the specific task being performed, individual preference of the knowledge worker, and the tempo and genre of the music make a huge difference.

To start with, research conducted in 2005 by the University of Windsor in Canada concluded that any increase in productivity from music may be related to the positive feelings that individuals get from that music. Essentially, people who listen to music that they like, feel better about themselves, and thus do better work. Forcing people to listen to music they don’t like, or forcing them to not listen to music at all could have the opposite result. The critical point is that people feel better when they listen to music they like.

The tempo and genre of the music is extremely relevant to any discussion of the impact of music on productivity. In my former career, I was a professional chef. In busy restaurant kitchens, I found it is essential to have fast-paced, aggressive music playing, preferably at loud volumes. Electronic dance music, heavy metal, and hip hop all worked well. The music would set the pace for the cooks and provide just the right amount of distraction that allowed everyone to relax, let muscle memory take over, and fall into a “zone.”

Although the music worked for us, it didn’t always work for others. Frequently, waiters would complain that they found the loud, fast-paced music distracting. Although perhaps this was simply a matter of personal taste, it also is important to consider that they were doing a completely different job – and using a different part of their brains. They had to remember orders, talk to customers, and generally be attentive to other human beings. We cooks needed to put our heads down and dig our way out of a rapidly growing hole by performing practiced, repetitive motions within a tightly knit team, often for hours on end. Different job requirements equal different musical needs.

In my current life as a writer and technology analyst, I work for the most part without music. It helps being in my home office, so I do not have to try to drown out background noise from co-workers, but for the most part I write and think more effectively with only ambient house noise. However, when I am faced with a repetitive task under a deadline, I revert to my cooking days and play mainly electronic dance music, although not as loudly as I used to. I’m getting old, I suppose. The beat sets a nice pace and keeps my brain moving quickly.

Context matters, and there is no one-size fits all answer when pondering how music impacts productivity. Find what works for you and enjoy it.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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