Music and Productivity

September 15, 2019

Should I listen to music while I’m working? My Youtube tab accompanies me every day. It makes everything enjoyable, from my daily work to my late-night parties.

The problem is I tend to spend more time choosing the right soundtrack to my life than doing actual work. Sometimes, I end up wasting several hours of my day watching a recommended playlist. Procrastination at its finest. It has to stop.

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in high school, when most of my lecture materials were on paper, I didn’t need a computer to work, and I had nothing to browse except the knowledge that was given to me. I just listened to the same playlist over and over on my MP3, or I used to let the silence run its course.

My ability to concentrate has been deteriorating ever since, or perhaps it’s my memory playing a trick. Everybody is listening to music while studying or working, why shouldn’t I?

When you research the impact of a few musical notes on productivity, you find paradoxical information leaving you in a deeper state of doubts.

Music releases dopamine, but the wrong song can be counter-productive depending on the nature of your work and your personality. For example, listening to an upbeat track will make you more productive at performing repetitive tasks or a workout, but the resulting emotional investment will negatively impact more complex work.

The relationship between music and productivity is a complex equation from which I’ll spare you the details. However, it appears clear to me listening to music while doing deep work is a bad habit.

All the studies I read regarding cognitive musicology agree on the kind of music we can benefit from while performing challenging work: classical music, jazz, ambient noise, funk, and soundtracks - without lyrics or hard beats. Familiar music that’s just engaging enough to provide a background noise. Music to keep your brain awake. If it goes further than that, you lose yourself to the music. If it’s boring, you don’t trigger the sweet dopamine rush. In any case, studies show it’ll still interfere with your learning process.

I find it a tad absurd. Maybe the problem is not the way we perceive music, but the way we perceive silence. People hate silence. Silence reminds us we are alone, and we hate hearing our thoughts, to the point of drowning them with whatever we find: a TV, a radio, a Youtube vlog, a podcast…

Music is a hell of a drug when you think about it. A wine you have to consume in moderation, otherwise it will hurt your ability to pay attention (and your eardrums). Just like we don’t need alcohol to have fun, we have to re-learn to be comfortable with silence during deep work. In this context, music is more about escapism than actually getting things done.

  1. Why music affects your productivity, Quartz at Work, Mayo Oshin, https://qz.com/work/1573440/why-music-affects-your-productivity
  2. How Music Affects Productivity, Business News Daily, Skye Schooley, https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/11294-music-effect-on-productivity.html
  3. The Science of Music and Productivity, Zapier, Sam Kemmis, https://zapier.com/blog/music-and-productivity/
  4. How music affects your productivity, Sparring Mind, https://www.sparringmind.com/music-productivity/
  5. How silence can help your productivity, Chris Edgar, Productive! Magazine, http://productivemag.com/8/how-silence-can-help-your-productivity
  6. The Power of Silence, Belle B. Cooper, Zapier, https://zapier.com/blog/silence-health-productivity/