How does background music affect work productivity and creativity? 9 research findings

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Leaving all anecdotes aside, let us look at the scientific evidence. Considering the value of this question in our day-to-day lives, I’ll summarize music psychology research here.

Research has given us quite a few valuable insights into how music affects our minds and behavioral output. One example is:

Listening to slightly distracting music in the background which makes you rethink your thoughts could actually promote your creative thinking!  

The truth is that people do listen to music while working or learning. The questions we need to ask are:  

Is music detrimental to work?   

Is music a creativity booster?   

Is music good for learning & productivity?   

Are certain types of songs better for work?

Is listening to music in the workplace a smart choice?

Let us find out.

The effect of background music on creativity, learning, productivity, and work environment.

The effect of background music on work quality, productivity, learning, and creativity

Here are 9 research findings on the role of music in creativity & productivity. Each point summarizes one academic paper.

Is music in the workplace a good idea? The following insights will help answer this question.

1. Music & creative design

Software workers, while working on software-design, experienced better emotional states (affect), lesser time on task, and improved quality of work while listening to music. Quality of work here was defined as creativity in design. The workers had the liberty to choose any music they like and listen to it whenever they wanted to.

2. Visual patterns & repetitive music

One experiment showed that visual cognition (identification & processing of Arabic symbols) was better with background music but the accuracy lowered once the music became repetitive. Correct visual recognition was better with a sensory-rich environment (rock & classical music). It seems that novelty in sound is important; and by extension, sensory stimulation may be more significant than the actual ‘musical’ quality.

3. Attention, stimulation, & self-chosen music

Surgeons who chose their own preferred music were physiologically more composed & had higher task accuracy on a non-surgical stressful task. Listening to music provided by experimenters was less favorable but still better than no background music. One explanation for this is that music counters stress and occupies attention to reduce overthinking or fixating on potential errors. Most tasks at work are low effort tasks that do not require too much complex thinking or attention for long durations. For example – typing, cleaning, coding, sorting, etc. are all habit-based activities that demand high concentration in short bursts. For such low-demand activities, a study showed that preferred background music enhanced periods of high concentration by reducing mind-wandering which ultimately increased total productivity. One reason is that low-demand tasks (or boring/habit-based tasks) are not stimulating enough to sustain attention, so music increases arousal to improve task-performance.

4. Background music & studying

One study found no overall difference between studying with or without music but within music conditions, rap & hip hop negatively affected GPA and classical & easy listening positively affected GPA. This is consistent with the idea that vocal content in music is a distractor due to its natural attention-grabbing nature. We are more reactive to vocal sounds than non-vocal sounds.

Related: Learn How to Increase Concentration and Focus while Studying and Working [Scientific Tips]

5. Creativity, music, and noise

A study on ambient noise and creativity showed that 50 to 70 decibels of ambient noise improved performance on creative tasks. High noise (85 dB) hurt creativity. Further investigations showed that moderate ambient noise made information processing difficult, which in turn promoted abstract reasoning changing construal levels. Construal level(CL) is the psychological distance between information and your thought. If something obscures information, makes it less tangible, or less cohesive, CL could increase. The higher CL is, the more abstract the thought is. Less information often increases the construal level. In turn, this promotes creativity. Note, abstract thinking is closely associated with creativity. Noise generally hampers learning and productivity especially when the learners are at a disadvantage such as language difficulties. However, what counts as noise is highly subjective. One man’s music is another man’s noise.

6. Classical music & classroom behavior

An unpublished thesis studied the behavior and motivation of 4th-grade students and found that background music improved their behavior, on task time, learning, and motivation. They used classical music to improve the global classroom environment & student’s engagement.

7. Arousing music & creativity

Yet another study found that background music (classical music high on arousal and positive mood) promoted divergent thinking but did not find any effect on convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is about taking diverging trains of thought to land on multiple solutions to a problem. This is characteristic of innovation and creative work. Convergent thought is more like logically working toward a single solution.

8. Work & music preference

While playing background music at work, a not-so-conclusive study showed that the intensity of liking or disliking music negatively affected attention. Loving the music or hating it increased the negative impact. Neutral music affected attention the least. In another study, researchers tested the effect of self-chosen music vs. no music on reading comprehension. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that those who listened to self-chosen music performed just as well as those who did not listen to any background music.

9. Belief about music’s effect

Music can benefit attention while working based on self-realized realistic assumptions about the effect of music on one’s own productivity. People who believed music helps had better performance. Those who thought it distracted them ended up being distracted by music. One way to interpret the study is by thinking people have accurate assumptions about how music affects them. Another way to interpret these results is by looking at how beliefs manifest into reality. The confirmation bias could warp our perception to notice only those times when our pre-conceived notions about the effect of music on work is confirmed and ignore those times it didn’t confirm. Or the self-fulfilling prophecy could make us act in ways that make our beliefs come true. i.e., believing music hurts productivity leads to lower effort or sabotage in performance to prove one’s belief.

This concludes a quick overview of research to know if listening to music during work is good or bad for productivity.

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You can extrapolate these findings to make a judgment call.

So does music make you productive? Yes. We see that listening to music in the background does benefit creativity & productivity but there are limitations to this. Loud music may be detrimental. Tasks needing attention at work benefit only from neutral music. Effect on creativity is largely indirect. Repetitive tasks may benefit from background music. Feeling good by listening to music could mediate the positive outcomes in learning and productivity. Understanding the people’s need for music while working might be important to actually observe the effect on productivity.

Summary of research on the effect of music on work productivity & creativity

  1. Procedural tasks such as movements & protocols you are used to doing benefit from background music.
  2. Preferred or liked music usually improves productivity.
  3. Attention demanding tasks can be hurt by music, especially vocal music.
  4. Not-so-loud music of your choice can help with creative work.
  5. Work time musical routines for a large group of people should ideally be neutral (no extreme likes or dislikes).
  6. Noise is generally bad and some styles of music could be noise to some people.

Overall, there is no direct answer to the question. But using these insights and then answering…

  • Who are the workers?
  • What activity are they doing? Is it mundane, Is it attention demanding? Is creativity important? Is instruction important?
  • Is the environment loaded with interpersonal interaction?

… could produce a tangible answer to the question we are looking at. If you need help in using this research to understand whether music is good for you or your office environment, leave a comment. I’ll help you decide.  

Further reading:  

Are you interested in knowing what study methods are the best? Read this. Are you interested in knowing if music is good while studying for college exams? Read this.

Book recommendation:

Beethoven’s Anvil is one of the best books I’ve read when it comes to the role of music in the human condition. It is full of research findings, conjectures, and hypothesis. The author examines music from multiple aspects (social, cultural, cognitive, physiological, metaphysical, etc.) In fact, he introduces a new word: Musiking, the human condition of involving oneself with music. I wholeheartedly recommend reading this book. Click to buy it.

The link below is an affiliate link. That means I earn a commission for selling the book at NO additional cost to you. 
Beethoven’s Anvil

P.S. I listened to music (overwerk) while composing this post. Is it creative? No. Is it productive? Perhaps. Did I feel I was productive in answering? Yes.

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2 thoughts on “How does background music affect work productivity and creativity? 9 research findings”

  1. Usually Blogs lack depth for serious learning. They are good for intellectual entertainment (in a good sense), announcements (again in good sense — for example announcing some new ideas, new articles, new products), “general interests” reading. Not the case with your post though, really enjoyed it reading it and it held my attention all the way through!