Listening to music while working or studying is surely a common thing. I decided to board on the journey to see if scientific research had some interesting point of view regarding this topic.
First of all, the research regarding music and productivity is rather a mess. There exists such a concept as The Mozart Effect — an idea that listening to classical music can increase your IQ. However, in the 90s, researchers found out that the effect was working only on spatial reasoning specifically, not IQ in general. So much about the results of listening to music before you actually do something.
Regarding listening to music while you are working, there is the theory of the Irrelevant Sound Effect, which defends the idea that music is a distraction for people doing especially mental arithmetic and other tasks that require holding information in the correct order in the short-term memory.
Recently, based on some logic and reasonable argumentation, researchers have defended the hypothesis that it all depends on three essential things: the nature of the music, the nature of the task, and the personality of the user. They implemented a study with 142 students who had to complete two mental tasks, one simple and the other one more complex. Each task was performed while listening to instrumental music versus no music at all. There were two variants of the music that changed the complexity of the soundtrack as well as the volume.
Long story short, the researchers’ explanation of the results is that for low boredom people who aren’t so keen on external stimulation, the quieter, more complex music provided just enough distraction to stop them from mind wandering from the simple task, thus boosting their task focus and performance. In contrast, the more boredom prone participants who like external stimulation tuned in too much to the complex music and were overly distracted by it, thus performing worse than when working in silence.
Another study suggests that the music you know might be much worse for your productivity that music you don’t know. They suggest that the next time you’re bothered by someone else’s bad music, console yourself that the noise could be less harmful to your work performance than your own choice would be.
There is also an app (there exists already an app for anything you could ever think of, right?) that claims to be able to boost your productivity by 400% due to specific music, and here you can read a rather bold review of the product.
So, Music or Silence?
In general, research suggests that the relationship between music and task performance is not a one-size-fits-all. Music does not appear to impair or benefit performance equally for everyone.
I am writing this article while listening to a quiet down-tempo music that reminds me of my travels to South America and has really long songs, with a very few lyrics. It helps me to remind in my creative flow and ignore other sound stimuli.
So should you listen to music while you work or should you not? Well, it all depends on who you are and what kind of music are you going to use. Just as in the case of almost everything in life, it is your personal task to find the right balance, whatever it might mean for you.
Want to read more scientific stuff about music & productivity? Here you can find an extensive paper on this, still rather quiet, topic.