How Music Affects Productivity

Chris Bird
By Chris Bird · Jan 08, 2024

Music has been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years, serving as a medium for expression, relaxation, and even healing. In the modern workplace, the impact of music on productivity has been a topic of much debate and study. With the entrance of music streaming services and the ubiquity of personal listening devices, it’s easier than ever for workers to plug in and tune out—with the aim of tuning into their work. So, how does music actually affect productivity?

The Psychology of Music and Cognitive Performance

The Mozart Effect Myth

Some of you might have heard of the 'Mozart Effect,' a popular theory in the 1990s which suggested that listening to Mozart's music could temporarily boost one's IQ and enhance cognitive performance. This theory took the world by storm after a study by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (1993) which found that college students performed better on spatial reasoning tasks after listening to Mozart's piano music. However, further research suggested that these improvements were either very short-lived or non-existent, and what remained was a broader understanding that music could activate certain areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions.

Music and the Brain

Research has since evolved to focus on how music can alter our mood and arousal levels, subsequently affecting our cognitive abilities. Music has the power to elicit emotions and physiological responses; it can make your heart race, trigger memories, or even help you relax. The tempo, volume, and complexity of the music can either energize us or calm us down, which in turn can make us more or less productive.

#### Cognitive Arousal and Task Performance

Every person has a 'sweet spot' of cognitive arousal for optimal performance on tasks. Cognitive arousal refers to the brain’s level of alertness and ability to process information. Music can play a role in achieving this optimal arousal. Upbeat, fast-tempo music might provide the activation energy someone needs to power through mundane or repetitive tasks. Conversely, calming music can be beneficial when tackling tasks that require high levels of concentration and focus, as it may prevent overstimulation and cognitive overload.

The Role of Genre, Lyrics, and Personal Preference

Genre Matters: Classical vs. Pop vs. Electronic

Different genres of music can have varying effects on your productivity. Classical music, often instrumental and with a moderate tempo, is widely regarded as the best genre for concentration and the completion of cognitive tasks. On the other hand, pop music can be distracting due to its catchy lyrics and repetitive beats — unless the task at hand is relatively simple or well-practiced. Electronic music, especially ambient or downtempo sub-genres, could also be a good fit for work requiring focus due to its lack of lyrics and steady rhythms.

Lyrics: Helping or Hindering?

The presence of lyrics in music can play a significant role in how disruptive music is to productivity. Lyrics can compete for the brain's attention alongside the task being performed, particularly if the task involves linguistic processing. Therefore, if you are writing, editing, or involved in any work that requires significant language processing, it may be worthwhile to opt for instrumental tracks.

The Power of Personal Preference

One can't ignore the importance of personal preference when discussing music's impact on productivity. Some people may find that their favorite music, regardless of genre or tempo, is what helps them work best because it improves their mood and motivation. The effects of music are highly individualized, and the key to leveraging music for productivity could lie in harnessing one's personal taste to create an optimal audio backdrop for work.

Music as a Tool for Focus and Environmental Control

Creating a Personal Audio Space

In open office environments where noise and distractions are common, music can serve as a personal bubble of sound that guards against external disruptions. It can help create a controlled audio environment that fosters concentration. This is particularly effective with noise-cancelling headphones, which can block out chatter, printer noises, and other unpredictable sounds that can break your focus.

Focus Playlists and Soundscapes

Many streaming services and apps now offer playlists and soundscapes designed specifically to aid concentration and productivity. These tailored auditory experiences often feature tracks with certain tempos, no lyrics, and soundwaves intended to boost concentration, such as binaural beats. Users can experiment with these ready-made options to find what works best for them without spending time curating their playlists.

The Rhythm of Routine

Incorporating music into your daily work routine can serve as a productivity cue. Certain playlists or genres can become synonymous with your work session, signaling to your brain that it's time to focus. Over time, starting your music can become a ritual that helps transition your mindset from 'idle' to 'work.'

The Downside of Distraction and Overstimulation

When Music Becomes a Distraction

While music can be a beneficial tool, it's essential to recognize when it becomes a hindrance instead of a help. For tasks that require high levels of cognitive function or creativity, complex or unfamiliar music can be more distraction than aid. It's also crucial to monitor volume levels, as excessively loud music can impair cognitive performance and contribute to stress instead of mitigating it.

Potential for Overstimulation

In a hyper-connected world where multitasking is the norm, adding music to the mix can sometimes overstimulate the brain, causing a decrease in performance. It's important to take regular breaks from auditory stimulation to give the mind a rest, especially during long work sessions.

Individual Differences in Susceptibility to Distraction

People differ significantly in their susceptibility to distraction. Those who are more easily distracted or who have difficulty regulating their attention might find that music interferes with their work, regardless of genre or tempo. In such cases, white noise or office soundscapes might be a better alternative to music.


As with so many aspects of human behavior, the relationship between music and productivity is complex and highly individual. Some may find that music is a significant boost to their work, while others might find it distracting. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there is a body of evidence suggesting that music, if used thoughtfully, can be an excellent tool for enhancing productivity.

From providing a sense of control over one's environment to stimulating the mind into an optimal state of arousal, music holds substantial potential for improving focus and efficiency. As with any tool, the key is knowing when and how to use it. That might mean a bit of trial and error to find the right type of music, at the right time, for the right tasks.

As we continue to work in increasingly dynamic and often disruptive environments, tools like music—and indeed, time tracking tools like TimeNavi—become invaluable allies in our quest for productive harmony. If you're interested in exploring how TimeNavi can further shape your time management and productivity, we encourage you to visit and see how it can complement your productive melody.

Also, if you want to find out more you can check this great podcast on music, learning, mood and productivity: