At Work, What Kind of Music Is Best? And When?

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This Week’s Insight: It’s a tricky problem for anyone working in an open-plan office: For better concentration, is it smarter to drown out your co-workers’ chatter by listening to music — or will that only result in further distraction? 

The answer largely depends on the task at hand, said Nick Perham of Cardiff Metropolitan University and Teresa Lesiuk of the University of Miami, who have each studied music and productivity. The two provided Science of Us with a few insights about the best soundtracks for the following kinds of work: creative, semantic processing (otherwise known as writing and reading), busy work, and learning a new skill.

What the Experts Say: First, let’s look at creative work — things like brainstorming or problem solving. Here, you should only listen before starting the task and not during, because creative work is usually best done in silence. Your best bet during your pre-task musical warm-up is probably going to be pop music, but any music that makes you feel good will do the trick, because a positive attitude has been linked to creative-thinking ability, Lesiuk said.

Next up: writing and reading. Listening to music with lyrics can screw you up while you’re trying to work with words, Perham said, for obvious reasons — the words you’re hearing make it harder to concentrate on the words you’re trying to read or write. For these tasks, try instrumental or classical music.

On to busy work: When you’re tackling the boring stuff — like deleting emails or inputting data — put on some fast-tempo tunes, with or without lyrics, and you’ll speed through the dullness much faster.

Bottom Line: Listening to music can either get your head in the game, or completely distract you from whatever it is you’re trying to knock off your to-do list. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but you can use these researcher-approved insights to at least build the framework for the ideal workday soundtrack. At the very least, it’s got to be better than listening to the sounds of a colleague with a cold, right?