Wednesday 26 March 2014 8:58 pm

How music can boost productivity

Plug in and watch your work rate come to a crescendo, but don’t fall for the Mozart myth

The proliferation of portable music players and streaming sites like Spotify and Grooveshark means more of us are listening to music at work. Not all of us have this luxury, but academics at the University of Sheffield put the number of people plugging in at the office at around 77 per cent. Can listening to music really help your on-task performance? Research seems to suggest so, but the well-known argument that classical music holds some unique quality is probably a myth.

We all know someone who swears by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johann Sebastian Bach to help them concentrate. And the idea was lent legitimacy by a 1993 paper in science journal Nature, where researchers found a temporary, but significant, increase in spatial reasoning skills immediately after subjects had listened to a Mozart sonata.

Subsequent studies, however, have failed to show that there is anything specific to Mozart (or classical music in general) that leads to higher performance, and the effect is now seen as something of a myth among academics. (This seems to have gone unnoticed among the producers of the thousands of Baby Mozart CDs, claiming to subliminally raise the IQ of infants if played often enough). But the question remains – if there’s nothing about Mozart or Bach in particular that could lead to higher performance in the office, are there any gains to be found by plugging in your headphones?

Teresa Lesiuk of the University of Miami would respond with a firm yes. Her research found that listening to music had a positive impact on both the creativity of workers (software developers were used as subjects), and the speed with which their work was completed. Broadly, the theory is that music can create mild positive feelings, or “state positive effects”, and that such states are sweet spots for getting work done, leading to improved performance.

So if it’s the “mild positive feelings” that are important, rather than anything unique to a specific genre or artist, surely the type of music isn’t all that important for boosting productivity. One person’s Bob Marley is another’s Billie Holiday – from punk to pop, as long as you’re enjoying it, productivity will flourish, right? 

Up to a point. But research by academics at Ohio Weslyan University found that there are limits to the kind of music that can help you concentrate. “High information-load” pieces (the study used rock music, but the same principle could apply for any of the more “in your face” genres) could actually have an adverse effect on reading comprehension and memorisation. It’s fairly intuitive – there’s only so much your brain can focus on at once, and something too distracting, like a heavy metal medley, or aggressive rap music, will take processing power away from elsewhere.

Brian Eno’s ambient works are frequently suggested as examples that are perfectly pitched for workplace productivity, as are some of the more laid back jazz soloists like Thelonius Monk. But it’s probably not worth being too restrictive when choosing. If you like it, and it’s helped you concentrate before, then stick with it. Just don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything magical about Mozart.

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