The best type of music to listen to for optimal focus and productivity: What the research says

music-headset

There is no scientific consensus on the effect of music on productivity​1​. But research has come up with some interesting findings that can help you choose the type of music that works best for you.

How music affects your productivity

One prominent theory says that music influences productivity by putting you in a particular mood or state of mind​1,2​. Music affects your focus because it’s arousing.

Here’s how it works: anything that is arousing or stimulating captures our attention. As a result, music can make us less focused if it’s too stimulating. The more stimulating the music, the more it distracts us from our work​3​.

What makes music stimulating?

Music has certain characteristics that can make it more or less stimulating​4​. These characteristics include:

  • Complexity. Complex music, like classical or experimental music, is more stimulating than music with simple melodies and harmonies​5​.
  • Lyrics. Vocals in a song can also take up extra resources because of the language processing they require compared to instrumental music​6,7​.
  • Tempo. Songs with more beats per minute (BPM) have more “auditory units” for your brain to process per minute, which makes music with a high BPM more stimulating​8​.
  • Volume. All else equal, music played at a high volume is more distracting​9​.
  • Familiarity. Try to steer clear of songs you either strongly like or strongly dislike, because music you’re familiar with can also take up more attentional resources​7,10​.

Based on the characteristics above, music you can listen to while working should be simple, free of lyrics, featuring very few beats per minute, played at a low volume, and music you don’t feel strongly about. This kind of music exists. It’s best known as silence.

That’s right, very often, the best way to focus is to turn the music off​7,11​.

By far the best type of music for focus and productivity.

When music can help you be more productive

Silence can help you focus in most cases. But is silence always the answer? It all depends on who you are, what kind of task you have at hand, and how you’re feeling.

There are at least three situations when music may help your productivity.

  • You’re working on a simple task. Simple tasks require very few attentional resources. So when people work on a simple task, much of their attentional resources remain underused. As a result, their brain is under-stimulated and starts to wander, ultimately reducing focus and productivity. In such cases, music can help—especially complex music with lyrics​5​. As music captures your unused attention, you can stay focused on simple tasks longer. For complex tasks, however, music is less helpful. Your music distracts you from the task at hand, especially if it’s too stimulating or familiar. The simpler the task, the more stimulating the music should be (see above for characteristics that make music more stimulating).
  • You’re stressed out. There is some evidence that, compared to silence, soft and relaxing music reduces work-related stress​12​.
  • You’re an extrovert. Research suggests that you’re more likely to be distracted by music if you’re an introvert compared to extroverts​13–15​. The reason is that introverts don’t do well when they’re over-stimulated, unlike extroverts. Interestingly, there is no evidence that you’ll be more productive while listening to music if you’re a creative type​16​.

How to choose your music depending on your goal

Music characteristicsYou’re working on simple tasksYou’re working on complex tasks
  
VolumeMedium to highLow / Silence
LyricsYes (vocals)No (instrumental)
Music complexityHighLow
TempoFastSlow
Song familiaritySongs you likeAvoid songs you strongly like or dislike
ExamplesPop, Rock, R&BAmbient, relaxation music, silence
How to adjust music style based on your work

Music listening and time of day

Music feels good, and we should enjoy it whenever we want. However, the music you listen to has different effects at different times of day. Here are some ideal times to listen to music–or not.

  • During breaks. Listening to music during short breaks at work can increase your productivity.
  • During workouts. Listening to music during long workouts can make exercise more enjoyable and boost your physical performance​17​.
  • Long before bedtime. When you listen to music before going to bed, your brain will continue processing it while you sleep. This leads to earworms, that is, music that gets stuck in your head. As a result, your sleep suffers and you’ll likely be unproductive and unable to focus the next day​18​.

Music recommendations

If you can’t stand silence or want a little bit more stimulation, ambient music may be a good compromise. Ambient music usually doesn’t have lyrics. It’s soothing, slow, atmospheric, and you can usually listen to it for hours without getting annoyed.

Here are a few of my personal recommendations:

A soothing playlist
You can’t go wrong with Stars Of The Lid
William Basinski makes music from gradually deteriorating tape loops
More soothing music

Research cited (click to expand)

  1. 1.
    Landay K, Harms PD. Whistle while you work? A review of the effects of music in the workplace. Human Resource Management Review. Published online September 2019:371-385. doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2018.06.003
  2. 2.
    Nguyen T, Grahn JA. Mind your music: The effects of music-induced mood and arousal across different memory tasks. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain. Published online June 2017:81-94. doi:10.1037/pmu0000178
  3. 3.
    Cassidy G, MacDonald RAR. The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance                of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music. Published online July 2007:517-537. doi:10.1177/0305735607076444
  4. 4.
    Keeler KR, Cortina JM. Working to the Beat: A Self-Regulatory Framework Linking Music Characteristics to Job Performance. AMR. Published online April 2020:447-471. doi:10.5465/amr.2016.0115
  5. 5.
    Gonzalez MF, Aiello JR. More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Published online September 2019:431-444. doi:10.1037/xap0000202
  6. 6.
    Shih YN, Huang RH, Chiang HY. Background music: Effects on attention performance. Work. Published online 2012:573-578. doi:10.3233/WOR-2012-1410
  7. 7.
    Avila C, Furnham A, McClelland A. The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music. Published online November 9, 2011:84-93. doi:10.1177/0305735611422672
  8. 8.
    Thompson WF, Schellenberg EG, Letnic AK. Fast and loud background music disrupts reading comprehension. Psychology of Music. Published online May 20, 2011:700-708. doi:10.1177/0305735611400173
  9. 9.
    Dalton BH, Behm DG. Effects of noise and music on human and task performance: A systematic review. OER. Published online January 11, 2008:143-152. doi:10.3233/OER-2007-7301
  10. 10.
    Huang RH, Shih YN. Effects of background music on concentration of workers. Work. Published online 2011:383-387. doi:10.3233/WOR-2011-1141
  11. 11.
    Dobbs S, Furnham A, McClelland A. The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Appl Cognit Psychol. Published online March 2011:307-313. doi:10.1002/acp.1692
  12. 12.
    Chanda ML, Levitin DJ. The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Published online April 2013:179-193. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.02.007
  13. 13.
    Deng M, Wu F. Impact of background music on reaction test and visual pursuit test performance of introverts and extraverts. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. Published online July 2020:102976. doi:10.1016/j.ergon.2020.102976
  14. 14.
    Furnham A, Strbac L. Music is as distracting as noise: the differential distraction of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Ergonomics. Published online February 2002:203-217. doi:10.1080/00140130210121932
  15. 15.
    Furnham A, Allass K. The influence of musical distraction of varying complexity on the cognitive performance of extroverts and introverts. Eur J Pers. Published online January 1999:27-38. doi:
    16.
  16. 17.
    Kämpfe J, Sedlmeier P, Renkewitz F. The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music. Published online November 8, 2010:424-448. doi:10.1177/0305735610376261
  17. 18.
    Scullin MK, Gao C, Fillmore P. Bedtime Music, Involuntary Musical Imagery, and Sleep. Psychol Sci. Published online June 9, 2021:985-997. doi:10.1177/0956797621989724
Brad Aeon
Brad Aeon

Brad Aeon is an Assistant Professor at the School of Management Sciences at University of Quebec in Montreal. He conducts research on the sociology, history, and philosophy of time management. His studies focus on how people can achieve what matters to them while reducing stress and living more meaningful lives.