Do We Work Better to Music?

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Getting and keeping the right frame of mind and mood while working appears to have much to do with picking the right kind of music to play.

We see folks doing other things while listening to music all the time. They’re mowing the lawn wearing their earbuds. Or they’re at the fitness center working the machines or doing their aerobic exercises while simultaneously “groovin'” to the tunes. There are those who put on their headphones before even taking their seat at their workstation. Some will tell you they can’t get through a work day without their music. And some insist they do their best work when they have something playing in the background. But is this really true? Do we work better when we’re musically entertained? The general answer to this question seems to be yes, but there are some qualifications. Music can indeed help us work better, but the beneficial effect depends on what kind of work we’re doing and what kind of music we’re listening to.

Teresa Lesiuk has been researching the question of whether we actually work better to music since she was a doctoral candidate at the University of Windsor in Canada. She’s continued that research since becoming an assistant professor at the University of Miami’s music therapy program. Her findings over the years suggest that listening to music really can enhance work productivity and the overall perceived quality of working life. It appears that’s largely because so many of our work duties these days involve relatively mindless, mundane, and repetitive activity. Generally speaking, music tends to spur the release of dopamine in our brains. That is, of course, if the music is lively, non-repetitive, and doesn’t contain sad or depressing themes. And the release of that particular neurotransmitter can indeed have a positive impact on our mental state and mood. Not all music does this, however. By design, some music is meant to bring us down. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that our brain’s neurochemical response to such music is responsible for the sad or melancholy mood we experience while listening to it. So getting and keeping the right frame of mind and mood while working appears to have much to do with picking the right kind of music to play.

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Some music can help keep us stimulated, which is especially beneficial when we’re involved in mindless work tasks. Upbeat, whimsical tunes with engaging melodies are particularly good at this. But some music can be stimulating to the point that it’s unhelpfully distracting, which is particularly problematic when the tasks we’re doing require our well-focused attention. Songs with hard to discern lyrics can also cause us to shift our focus or even take us off task. Similarly, musical passages that are particularly intense, provocative, or strident can capture too much of our attention. If our job requires some on the spot new learning, music that grabs too much of our attention can put us at a real disadvantage. As most teachers who’ve had to deal with attention deficient children already know, it’s really hard to learn when we’re distracted.

The more mentally taxing and emotionally draining our work is, the more music with the just the right energy can get us going and keep us motivated. Music that’s just plain “fun” to listen to or which is lively in tempo or beat is well-suited for work like this. And for those tasks that are inherently anxiety-evoking or frustrating, music with a soothing score can keep us from prematurely fatiguing. Instrumental pieces, electronic music, natural sounds music, and classical music (especially classical music from the Baroque period) can be particularly good at producing a soothing, calming effect, so it helps to have this kind of music playing in the background when we’re doing inherently stressful work.

Although his famous phrase is frequently misquoted, William Congreve’s lead character in his play The Mourning Bride asserts that “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” The character’s bosom is laden with worry and grief and she finds the inner peace she craves illusive. But she finds hope in music — apparently the right kind of music — the power to soothe her troubled soul. While many of us have long believed that music has the power to de-stress, we now have some pretty good empirical evidence to back up that claim. And the evidence also suggest that depending upon the type of music we select, a friendly tune can help us be more energized, upbeat, and ultimately more productive on the job.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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