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As a child, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave concerts in public venues and private dressing rooms. He performed in his family’s apartment in London, where people would come to listen to the young music prodigy for an admission fee. He performed for the likes of Louis XV’s daughters, Princesses Adélaïde and Victoire, and the King and Queen themselves. In those days, the first music-listening device hadn’t been invented. (Thomas Edison would introduce the phonograph more than a century later, in 1877.) Live was the only way to listen.
Today, music is radically more accessible. It’s everywhere, and there’s so much of it. Fun fact: It would take someone until the 27th century to listen to the 100 million or so songs currently available on Spotify alone. Music serves many purposes beyond entertaining the aristocracy. We use it to motivate us through a workout, to distract us during a root canal or to help us fall asleep.
Step inside my office at Jotform, and you’ll often find me listening to classical music (if I’m writing) or rock and roll (if I’m catching up on emails). And I’m not alone: In one survey, 85 percent of respondents said they enjoy listening to music at work. Another 71 percent said they’re more productive when music is playing at the office, with pop, rock and country songs providing the biggest boost.
Although the so-called “Mozart effect” has been debunked — studying music does not improve intelligence — researchers have found a curious link between music and productivity. With millions of choices at our fingertips, it’s important to understand the latest findings on music and productivity before you create your next playlist.
Related: The Art of the Power Nap — How to Sleep Your Way to Maximum Productivity
Your taste in music matters
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. One person’s motivational music is another person’s noise pollution. If you want to listen to music to boost your productivity, it’s important to choose songs that you enjoy.
As Merriam Saunders, psychotherapist and Dominican University psychology professor, explained to Business News Daily, music has a dopaminergic effect on the brain, which means that it creates dopamine. Dopamine, in turn, stimulates the prefrontal cortex — the center of the brain responsible for planning, organizing, inhibition control and attention. In short, if your brain makes more dopamine, it can help you become more productive. But, Saunders noted, the key is choosing music you enjoy but have also listened to enough that you’re not focusing on the lyrics or beat.
That explains why I find myself listening to the same playlist of songs I love over and over again while I work. The music puts me in a good mood (in other words, it gets the dopamine flowing), but I’ve listened to those songs so many times that I barely register the words. It’s almost Pavlovian, the way I click play and dive into my work.
Related: There’s a Scientific Reason You Can’t Stop Thinking About Unfinished Tasks. Learning to Harness That Energy Will Make You More Productive.
Your personality traits matter, too
Your taste in music isn’t the only factor determining if a song helps or hurts your productivity. Your personality — introversion versus extroversion — also impacts if and how much you benefit from background music.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief innovation officer at ManpowerGroup and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, writes for Harvard Business Review: “If you are extroverted, you will tend to be naturally under-stimulated, which is why your performance will likely increase with background music or minor distractions. Conversely, being an introvert increases the probability that you find any background noise, including music, distracting, to the point of impairing your performance.”
Of course, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between introversion and extroversion. But it’s helpful to understand that whereas more introverted people will benefit more from ambient tunes, extroverts can lean into more stimulating songs. Whereas an introvert might benefit from elevator music, an extrovert might thrive on ACDC.
Related: The Science-Backed Case for Embracing Boredom in the Workplace
Consider task complexity
Before choosing a song, you should also consider the complexity of the task at hand. Chamorro-Premuzic explains if you’re comfortable doing something (because, for example, you’ve done it countless times), background music will help you focus. If you’re new to something and it’s complex, you should avoid background music, at least at the outset.
We all have tasks that challenge and engage us and others that we complete on autopilot. In my new book, I conceptualize the two as meaningful work (or the “big stuff”) versus busy work. The purpose of writing the book was to give readers the tools to automate the latter and make more space for the former. Still, the fact remains that while we can slash busy work through automating, delegating or eliminating, we can’t entirely get rid of it. Invoices will always have to be sent. Meetings need to be scheduled. Inboxes must be organized. While carrying out the necessary busy work that links together the more meaningful parts of our day, music can help us complete it efficiently and effectively.
Related: What Expert Mountaineers Can Teach You About Accomplishing Your Most Daunting Tasks
Reminder: Work should be fun
If you’re still not convinced to curate a new office playlist, consider this: Work should be fun. Research suggests that having fun on the job has a positive impact on engagement, creativity and purpose, all of which increase employee retention and reduce turnover.
In researching Work Made Fun Gets Done, co-authors Bob Nelson and Mario Tamayo interviewed hundreds of employees across industries and career stages to better understand what people did to make work more fun.
Their findings? Music was an effective strategy for ratcheting up the fun factor.
So listen to music you like and music that suits your mood. If you’re looking for motivation, maybe a Queen ballad will do the trick. If you’re after a zen song to finish a stressful project, a relaxing piano composition might set the tone.
Music can make work more enjoyable. It can help you manage your busy work. It can enable you to dig into more meaningful work. If you think about it, it’s one of the most accessible productivity tools out there—and it’s largely free. With the above strategies, hopefully you can choose among the 100-million-plus songs out there and craft your perfect productivity playlist.
Related: Struggling With Productivity? You Just Need to Give Yourself Fewer Options.