Does Listening to Music While You Work Hurt Your Productivity?

For the last few months, I’ve started listening to music more because I’m mostly working from my basement. Here are my informal conclusions on whether listening to music helps or hurts your productivity.

First, it depends on what kind of work you are doing. For some kinds of work, it doesn’t hinder your productivity at all and makes it more pleasant. Obviously.

Second (and this is the important point), I’ve found that for intensive work that requires focus and great concentration, listening to music keeps me from getting into the zone and thus causes my work to take a lot longer. Further, there are some breakthroughs that probably don’t happen because of the fact that you aren’t able to concentrate fully — thus decreasing the quality of your work.

This happens in spite of intentions, and you largely have no control over it. In other words, even if you have high energy and are ready to get into the zone, music will often prevent it from happening.

This applies only to music with words, and there are of course some exceptions. But in the main, I’ve found that if I need to get dialed in and concentrate, music with words is a big stumbling block.

That’s what I’ve found. What have you found?

  • Dean

    Same here. If music has words I find myself wanting to listen. I came across a playlist called “Classical Study Music” on Spotify and I have found it quite helpful.

  • Denny Dispennette

    I have experienced the same thing. Working on my Master’s thesis in an office with other graduate students, I desired often to drone out the noise. It depends on how mundane the task. If I’m doing repetitive work (reducing test data) then rock on. If I’m trying analyze critically and draw clear conclusions then I can’t focus with lyrical music. Lecrae is a no-no when I’m working like this, but symphonic is ideal.

  • RN

    It depends on the kind of music. Is it’s mellow classical, or electronic, or downtempo, it really helps me get work done. If it’s loud rock, or even something complex by Mozart, it throws me off.

  • http://N/A Terry Unrein

    For analytic work in the office, I’ve created numerous playlists in iTunes. For deep thinking I listen only to mellow classical music – but the better I know the piece, the more it becomes a distraction. After lunch I play (for a short time) an upbeat playlist which is a pick-me-up, tapering off to more productive classical music. For really deep thinking I turn off the music altogether and keep the Bose headset on, thus blocking out all distractions.

  • Roger Healey

    I have considered this same issue over many years and came up with the same conclusions you did. When I’m writing, I can’t listen to music. When I’m doing empirical work, it depends on exactly what I am doing, whether I can listen to music. Music without words is better for working than music with words, but if the task is mindless enough, it doesn’t matter. I recommend Moby, Thievery Corporation, or Vangelis (I’m kidding but I do listen to those.)

  • Loren Pinilis

    I have playlists for different things.
    For mindless work (yard work, cleaning my office, running errands), I listen to podcasts. I have energetic stuff I listen to when I’m doing grinding type work like emptying my inbox. For writing or other work which requires concentration, I listen to things such as the Transformers soundtrack.

    I feel the same about music with words – it’s very distracting. But play the Transformers soundtrack and tell me that doesn’t get you focused!

  • Chris Gagner @ PrayBuddy

    I tend to focus better on work when I have music playing, but I have to be careful to choose something with the right tone. If I get too engrossed in the music, I’ll find that my focus will shift to the music and I’ll start losing focus.

    I also recommend staying away from programs like Pandora when working. I find a need to thumbs-up every song I like and skip every song I don’t like. It’s a good system, but not good for productivity.

  • Adriel

    I have to do music without words as well, and even with the wordless, it has to be music I’m not familiar with (or I start playing along with it in my head). And, in general music is bad. However, sound is GOOD for keeping me from being distracted. I actually started listening to white noise when I need to concentrate deeply, especially at a coffee shop. I know it is so boring, but it works AMAZING and shuts out the world to me.

  • Ken Puls

    It also depends on your training and education. I majored in music in college and continued to study music at seminary. When I hear music of any kind, my thinking gravitates toward it and I start analyzing and following themes and chord progressions. If I am trying to do work (other than composition and arranging) that requires concentration, I have to keep all music off.

  • Andrew Tebbe

    I think another wrinkle is added for those that don’t have their own office. I’ve found that listening to music (even music with words) enables greater concentration than trying to tune out the random office noises, phone calls, hallway conversations, etc. that occur throughout the day.

  • Rachael Starke

    I thought of this post because I’m currently in the tedious phase of multiple projects – creating frameworks, timelines, action owners. Basically in PowerPoint/Excel Hades. For that work, I inevitably find myself either drawn to a public place with a lot of ambient noise that isn’t relevant to me (e.g. Starbucks, NOT my office with the door open where I can hear snippets of conversation that might be relevant), or I close my door and put on “neutral” music (at the moment, Norah Jones or Diana Krall). It can’t be muzak, or I’m distracted by how bad it is. And it can’t even be worship music, or I find myself engaging with it. It has to music that simply tells my brain – time to work on this thing in front of you, not the thing you’d rather be doing.

    I wonder how much of this is a personality issue. I and others I know who are easily distracted or, ahem, easily tempted toward the interesting, less important project, over the dull yet important one, have the same perspective.

  • Tim Atkins

    I like to listen to the app on the iPhone. It really relaxes me and puts me in the zone. The sound quality is unmatched in nature sound apps.

  • Tim Atkins

    I like to listen to the Naturespace app on the iPhone. It really relaxes me and puts me in the zone. The sound quality is unmatched in nature sound apps.

  • Kenny Keahey

    I, too, have found that listening to music with words can prevent me from entering into the “zone” and thus it prevents me from being high productive depending on the type of work and type of music. If I am doing work to complete a school project such as research and writing papers, I can listen to music with very little distraction, in fact, as you stated the music makes my time more enjoyable. But I have found that I cannot listen to any type of music, with or without words, when I am studying the Bible and writing a sermon. I cannot focus and I never seem to enter that “spiritual zone” where my writing is flowing with creativity, insight and divine inspiration.