Why are some folks productive donning headphones and listening to music as they work, while others find that they can’t have lyrics in their ears, instead preferring the ambient sounds of a busy workplace? This question has prompted countless studies and debates about the effects that listening to music can have on workers’ performance and comfort. Of course, we still don’t know the answer. Studies are still in progress.
As we near our tenth month of people working from home during the pandemic, another layer has been added to the question. As it turns out, where you work doesn’t make much of a difference. Whether you silently chug away with music blasting through your headphones next to your workmates or you do the same thing in a home office or repurposed bedroom, those of us who need music to concentrate aren’t likely to change that when our workspace changes. Perhaps, if you don’t have any bubble mates you might ditch the headphones, but the music is still there.
I found this interesting, so after reading articles and commentary on various studies, it seems to me that the ultimate answer is—it depends. Almost all of the articles I read look for a correlation between listening to music and doing a task. They compare music that’s loud and soft, slow and fast, complicated and simple, as well as variables such as how much concentration the current task requires. Still, with all of this research being performed and all of the data being collected, the answer depends on the person. Almost as important, it depends on the person’s mood or state of mind. However, I found it interesting that people may mistakenly choose music that makes them less productive, especially during the pandemic, as music therapist Jessica Pouranfar points out.
“Sometimes people who are anxious listen to intentionally calming music but it just makes them more anxious. It’s because the music doesn’t match where they are emotionally right now.”
— Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist
Pouranfar goes on to say that if you do choose to listen to music while at work, the choice of music should match your current mood, so it won’t interfere with your concentration or productivity. Even if the mood you’re in is negative (as it is for many during the pandemic), she advises starting by matching your music to your mood and gradually shifting the playlist to a more positive tone.
So go grab your coffee, mosey on over to your kitchen table styled desk, throw on some tunes or not and go to work. Whether the music is there or it isn’t, as long as you are productive, that will be music to your bosses ears.
In addition to Pouranfar’s perspective on the way people’s preferences are changing during the pandemic, I also found some interesting articles about how listening to music literally alters our minds at work to boost productivity and an infographic that delves into how types of music affect different personalities.
Ultimately, the relationship between music and the performance of cognitive tasks is not one-size-fits-all, agree researchers. What works for you, your attention span and your need for stimulation may not work for the person sitting next to you. Music, in general, is not good or bad for task performance in one single way for everyone. And it can change depending on the task you’re doing.
And if you can’t listen to music, but aren’t a fan of silence, either, a white noise generator can take the place of the office sounds you’re missing.
For me, I prefer listening to music while I work. However, headphones bother me and my workmates do not consider what I listen to as music. In fact, they’ve described it as chains being dragged across a factory floor or dental drills and banging hammers. So I’m taking full advantage of work at home. Enjoy this special bonus track with my compliments.