How can music improve productivity and focus?

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We know that music can make a huge difference to mood, but what about productivity? Greg Aiello from PRS explains what kinds of music are most likely to work best in your particular situation, whether working from home or in a socially distanced office.

Going about your day-to-day life, you’re more than likely to stick on your favourite playlist in the background. Whether you’re in the car, at the gym or sitting at your desk, your favourite artist is no doubt keeping you company through your speakers. But have you ever stopped to consider how the music you listen to is affecting your brain?

The idea that music can aid productivity in the workplace is not as new as many might imagine. Way back in 1940, the BBC launched a twice-daily weekday radio programme, Music While You Work, designed to increase factory workers’ productivity. The show proved so popular that for a while there was even a third edition, broadcast later in the evening and specifically targeted at night shift workers. In total the scheme ran for an incredible 27 years, finally being retired in 1967.

What genre aids productivity the most?

There is no clear answer as to what genre of music best helps you to maintain focus: what you listen to should really be governed by what it is that you’re doing.

Carrying out clear, repetitive tasks can often be mundane, but listening to music can make these kinds of tasks more enjoyable. Listening to your favourite songs causes your brain to release dopamine, which improves your mood and reduces stress and anxiety. But how does your mood affect your concentration?

Me and my work music

Michael Johnson, founder of Johnson Banks design studio: ‘We have music on all day in the studio. Plugging headphones in is discouraged. I cannot listen to music with lyrics if I’m composing words …  But when completing a task where not a lot of creative thought is required the team tends to like metronomic music – like a dance track; Mechanical Brothers, that kind of thing.

‘Left to my own devices I tend to go for minimalist modern classical: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams … it’s mind music, if I’m stuck for a good idea then listening to modern classical on a train, say, always works. Other times during the work process I like to let something more jazzy wash over me, like Pat Metheny.

‘We are completely democratic in the studio unless someone’s been driven crazy. But if it’s someone’s birthday they can put on what they like.

‘I’ve had some designers who’ve called some of what I listen to “lift music”. But it’s there as a companion and helps the creative process. I could not work with, say, Shostakovich on. I would have to stop and listen.’

Tom, PR manager: ‘While my favourite genres would have to be rock and indie, I tend to find myself being distracted in the office by music with lyrics. So, while I’m working, I’ll often listen to something instrumental. Some soothing piano by Einaudi or Yiruma or an inspiring film score by Hans Zimmer always goes down a treat.’

Adam, journalist: ‘I’m not very catholic in my tastes. If it’s modern pop I’m likely to become distracted and irritated. But if some good jazz is playing it helps my mood and productivity. But sometimes it’s so good I have to stop working and focus all my attention on it – especially if unfamiliar.’

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Well, it’s common knowledge that conditions like anxiety and depression can trigger behaviours like procrastination that hinder your ability to clear your workload. Being in a good mood means that you’re more likely to be able to stay on track and get everything done.

You would think that listening to music that pumps you up would be great when you’re immersed in a creative task, but that’s not always the case. Instead, listening to classical music while you’re carrying out immersive work can get your creative juices flowing, with no lyrics to tear you away from the depths of concentration.

Familiarity is best for focus

When you’re looking to get deep into your work for a long time, listening to familiar songs can help you stay focused for longer. That’s because certain regions in the brain that improve concentration are more active when we listen to music that we know, rather than something that’s unfamiliar. So, listening to songs you’ve heard over and over is a good idea when you really want to get in the zone.

Unfamiliar songs can also be a distraction for some people: when your brain is hearing something new, it’ll make the most effort to listen. Sticking to your favourite radio station, albums or playlists could be the best way to use music to help you focus on an unfamiliar, detailed task.

Use music to create a positive working environment

There’s no denying that an upbeat playlist can make even the most mundane task more enjoyable, so don’t underestimate the power of having music playing in the workplace when it comes to boosting staff morale. If you’re in a private workspace like an office, playing music that everyone can enjoy can really increase the energy in the room and be a driving force throughout the day.

If you work in a public space like retail or hospitality, ambient music can have a huge impact on how both your team and your customers feel and behave. Pablo Ettinger, co-founder of Caffè Nero, says that he sees the value of this every day: “I think people recognise that our music is not background music, it’s a lot more than that… later in the evening we play much more upbeat music when staff are clearing because it makes them feel good. In the morning before the customers get there we try and play something that’s more upbeat as well when staff are getting going in the morning.”

Listening to music clearly has an overall positive effect on focus and productivity, which is why so many of us rely on it to get through the working day. So, next time you’re feeling less than motivated at work, take a minute to pay attention to the sounds around you – if music doesn’t feature, it could be the missing link.

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