Lionel Valdellon
Aug 5, 2015 · 6 min read

Getting things done with your headphones on isn’t as simple as pressing play. Here are some tips backed by research studies on what sounds are best for focus and productivity.

“What is the best music to listen to while working?”

It’s one of those questions I get asked often, whether in the office or online. And since I enjoy producing audio and music in my spare time, and am constantly researching productivity topics in my role as a blogger for Wrike, I figured I should write this stuff down.

Obviously, the answer will depend on your audio preference. I can’t force you to listen to downtempo electronica if you like film soundtracks, or if you prefer the ambient sounds of a restaurant. I can however provide you with some guidelines surrounding audio and work, backed by science.

Tips on Listening While You Work

1. Play Music When Doing Repetitive Tasks You’ve Mastered

A study done involving 50 surgeons found that listening to music improved their speed and accuracy as they accomplished repetitive tasks that they already knew how to do well. The best performance occurred in surgeons who chose their music. And even in the group where the experimenters chose the music, surgeons still did better than those with no music at all! So if you have 200 support tickets to power through, then by all means crank up that EDM playlist that you listen to at the gym.

2. Listen to Instrumental Music to Stay Focused

Stick with instrumental music when it’s time to focus, since lyrics can be distracting. A study in Taiwan involving 102 workers concluded that background music with lyrics had significant negative effects on concentration and attention. So if you’re ever tempted to play Europe’s “The Final Countdown” on loudspeakers near the end of the sales cycle, just… don’t. Everyone will sing along and it’ll take about 25 minutes to get back to what you were doing.

3. Use Music in a Major Key to Lift Your Mood

Some research suggests that it isn’t the physical sound wave hitting your eardrum that makes the difference, it’s the way the audio makes you feel. In fact, a study on how background music can affect anxiety, satisfaction with communication, and productivity revealed that listeners exposed to music in a major key were not only more productive but also more satisfied in their communication with others as compared to those who listened to music in minor keys or dissonant tones. So if you’re a Mozart diehard, then by all means, loop the Piano Sonata No.11 in A Major to help you write next week’s blog posts with a smile.

4. Find Music with a Fixed Tempo and Volume

Fixed tempo means it goes at a steady pace, never speeding up or slowing down. And a fixed volume means there are no loud surprises after a soft section. It also means you set the volume level and leave it there the entire time.

If you like jazz, avant garde blues might not be as productive as, say, ragtime or bebop. If you like electronic music, house music’s steady 4/4 rhythms are spot-on. If you like classical music in general, veer away from the intense ups and downs of Wagner and (some) Beethoven and instead, stick to the steady rhythms of Mozart or Baroque-era music (Bach and Vivaldi). In fact, a study involving radiologists and Baroque classical music shows improved diagnostic efficiency and accuracy when listening to Bach.

In my personal experience, ever since high school, I’ve studied for exams using nothing but Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto bossa nova, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In fact, I credit its steadiness with helping me memorize and recall details — so much so that I could often hear the music in my head as I answered test questions.

5. Listen to Ambient Noise at Low Volumes for Creative Tasks

If your work involves thinking up ideas or you’re building a product from scratch, try listening to ambient noise (such as coffee house sounds or white/pink/brown noise generators).

Research shows that listening to ambient noise at a moderate level (around 70 decibels) enhances performance on creative tasks. The logic here is that a low stream of of noise stays in the background, not vying for attention, but its presence forces your brain to process more stimuli, which promotes abstract reasoning and enhances creativity. But once it gets louder (around 85 decibels), the noise then reduces our capability to process information, which in turn cripples creativity.

6. Use Noise-Canceling Headphones

Most noise-canceling headphones have a built-in microphone that actively listens to the ambient noise around you (traffic, airplane rumble, etc.) then generates a noise-canceling wave that is out of phase with the ambient sound, effectively negating each other. So even if you opt to forgo the audio, the headphones can at least cancel out most of the distracting sounds around you.

Where to Go for Productivity-Enhancing Audio

With the above tips in mind, there are really two main directions you can head for background audio — ambient/nature sounds or music. So below I’m grouping my favorite sources for audio into those two categories. Here’s hoping they also help you focus on the work that needs doing!

Ambient & Nature Sounds

  • — Mix and match different soothing nature sounds (leaves, rain, fire, night, wind), different noise generators (white, pink, brown), and even modern ambience such as cafe sounds, trains, and electric fans. Pick the sounds you want and set the volume for each sound. You’re in control. Plus, the UI is charmingly simple.
  • — A website and iOS app with a wide palette of background sounds to choose from, including soundscapes, atmospheres, voices, natural sounds, tonal drones, industrial noises. It’s not just nature or tones, you can listen to everything from sinister atmospheres to noisy machines. You can use sliders to adjust levels, or set it it to animate automatically, and even save your settings.
  • Coffitivity — Website and app for cafe/restaurant sounds.
  • SimplyNoise — Website and app that’s a no-frills generator for pink, white, and brown noise.
  • Youtube — The search function is your friend. Try this 3-hour long Alpha waves study music track, this 30-minute long study track using isochronic tones, or this 2-hour-long rain and thunder track for relaxation. Or if you’re a sci-fi geek, you’ll enjoy this 1-hour long track of ambience from the bridge of the Voyager (from Star Trek Online).

Music and Playlists

  • Focus@Will — A freemium, curated music app with playlists that are “scientifically optimized to boost concentration and focus.” The free version is great, and the “Alpha Chill” channel is perfect for lovers of downtempo electronica.
  • 8Tracks — An online, user-curated “radio” featuring playlists of every stripe. For example, check out these 14 Get Things Done playlists, or listen to my very own Get Things Done Chill Groove playlist.
  • Mixcloud — While many might list Soundcloud here, I prefer the long-form DJ mixes and playlists on Mixcloud as they don’t disappear as quickly as Soundcloud links. (An irritation only music-lovers can empathize with.)

This listing only scratches the surface. I’m pretty sure you have your own list of go-to websites or apps for productivity-enhancing sounds, so share them with me — I’d love to hear them!

If You’re Looking for Productivity-Enhancing Apps

I blogged about some of the apps I use to help me focus and get through my tasks for the day here: 10 Free Productivity Apps for Getting Things Done.

Also, follow my Flipboard magazine Productivity Works for links to work management tips, and personal productivity strategies.

Lionel Valdellon

Written by

Content marketer, Agile marketing enthusiast, productivity nerd, composer, parent, & electronic musician.

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