The debate over whether we should be allowed to rock out at our desks has been raging for decades. Now science is providing some answers – and they’re not what you think.
The weapon was initiated at precisely 10:30 in the morning.
It was 23 June 1940 and World War Two was in full swing. The Germans had already invaded vast swathes of continental Europe; in the preceding weeks, 10,000 British troops had been captured in Normandy.
Now the BBC had been asked to get involved. Their powerful intervention was completely invisible, yet capable of infiltrating the minds of thousands of people all at once, all over the country. Over the next few years, it arguably helped to win the war.
This was the “Music While You Work” programme – a brainchild of the UK government, which thought that broadcasting live, upbeat music in factories twice a day might help to step up the pace of work and get the military the munitions they so badly needed.
It was a hit. In a report on the show’s success, BBC executives cited the numerous letters and reports they had received from managers nationwide. One described its impact as “incalculable”, while another estimated that, for an hour or so after a session of music, output at their factory increased by 12.5-15%.
Fast-forward eight decades and working to music is extraordinarily common; one 2019 survey of 2,000 Britons found that around half regularly listen to music while they work – with two out of five believing that it helps them to get more done. And as headphones have become standard work accessoriesand productivity playlists have racked up millions of views on YouTube, some companies have started to broadcast music over entire workplaces.
For decades, there's been a belief that listening to Mozart's work can make you smarter (Credit: Getty Images)
MichaelVettraino, who founded the London-based music consultancy MAV music, says the company has helped to introduce background music to several offices. While their main focus is on providing bespoke playlists for restaurants, casinos and hotels, recently they have branched out into supplying offices, many of which are introducing music for the first time.
“Our clients have told us that it's increased their productivity when they’ve had the right music playing in the office, in terms of staff motivation,” says Alex Hill, who works as MAV’s head of music and operations. They are always careful to factor in the demographics of their audience – their age, etc. – and fit the music to how they’re likely to be feeling at different times of day.
“When you're concentrating you’ll want calmer, more relaxing music and at the end of the day when you’re feeling tired, you’ll want something more upbeat. We know that a graphic design agency in Shoreditch is going to want very different music to a high street bank Gloucester. But if you get it right, it should hopefully help people to work harder.”
But can this really be true – or is it wishful thinking? It’s a perennial debate and one that’s almost as divisive as whether reclining your seats on an airplane is OK or what colour that notorious dress is.
The ‘Mozart effect’
Some of us feel that blasting out tunes in the workplace is an inalienable right; the teenager inside us swears they can’t concentrate without the dulcet tones of Kanye West or Taylor Swift ringing in their ears. One despairing worker took to social sharing site Reddit to vent about a colleague who gets into the zone each morning by playing mariachi band music.
Others take cocooning their brains from distraction extremely seriously, booking conference rooms for parties of one, constructing passive-aggressive emails about noise in the office and donning headphones while secretly listening to nothing. The billionaire Bill Gates reportedly gave up music and television at any time of day for five years in his 20s to help him focus.
Our clients have told us that it's increased their productivity when they’ve had the right music playing in the office, in terms of staff motivation – Alex Hill
“Historically, music and work have always been intertwined,” says Karen Landay, a former professional violinist and graduate student at the University of Alabama who has authored a review on the subject. “Think about romantic visions of peasants singing as they harvest, or sea chanteys sung by sailors as they work on their ships. And since most people enjoy listening to music of some kind in at least some contexts, it’s perfectly natural to feel that music must have some sort of positive impact on our work.”
There are two possible ways that music might be beneficial in the workplace: by making us smarter, or by making us feel good, and therefore helping us to plod on with otherwise boring tasks.
The best-known example of the first is the “Mozart effect” – broadly the idea that listening to a piano sonata devised by a genius can make you one too. The phrase was popularised after a 1993 paper claimed that people perform better on certain spatial tasks, such as folding paper, after listening to Mozart for 10 minutes.
Some scientists think music doesn't make us more productive, but rather, we convince ourselves of it because it's a gift from our employers (Credit: Alamy)
The concept has spawned a whole industry of products, such as headphones that mothers can use to play Mozart to their unborn children. It sounds farfetched, but more recent studies have hinted that there might genuinely be something unusually beneficial about his music.
For example, research conducted in 2015 compared the impact of Mozart’s “K. 448”, a composition for two pianos, with Beethoven’s equally celebrated “Für Elise”, a solo piano piece. It turns out that while Mozart’s sonata increased “alpha band” brain waves – which have been linked to memory, cognition and problem solving – Beethoven, oddly, had no such power.
There’s also the discovery that mice who were subjected to 10-hour recitals of Mozart’s K. 448 for 10 weeks were significantly better at navigating a complex maze than ones which had to listen to Beethoven’s Für Elise instead.
So, with some famous composers’ work having clearer cognitive benefits than others – what are we to believe? There is another explanation, in which it doesn’t improve our intellectual abilities at all – it just seems to. This is where the second theory comes in.
Altering our mood
“Activation theory” was thought up in the 1960s, amid concern that people may struggle to remain productive in dull jobs, such as assembly line work in factories, for long periods of time. It’s broadly the idea that people need a certain amount of mental arousal in order to be able to function effectively.
“Depending on the individual, this can improve performance because it will increase attention,” says Landay. “However, if the level of activation becomes too high, performance could go down – imagine an overstimulated toddler.”
Some scientists think this is why certain music seems to be beneficial; it’s like a caffeine shot to the brain. For example, a 2001 study tested whether listening to the rather upbeat Mozart’s K. 448 or a slow, sad song – Adagio in G minorby Albinoni – could improve the spatial performance of a group of students. This time, they were also asked to rate their level of arousal before and after the task.
As usual, Mozart’s K. 448 was beneficial, while the other song did nothing to improve the participants’ abilities. Intriguingly, his piece seemed to alter their mood and increase their level of arousal, while Albinoni’s Adagio actually decreased it – and when the researchers factored this in, the Mozart effect disappeared.
This could potentially also explain why Beethoven’s Für Elise wasn’t as beneficial to the mice in the maze, and why it didn’t seem to activate any brain areas which are beneficial for cognition. For reasons that remain unclear, Mozart’s sonata might be better at altering our mood and boosting our levels of arousal, therefore improving our performance. There’s every possibility that Kanye West and Taylor Swift could be equally stimulating, but alas, no one has checked yet.
Historically, music and work have always been intertwined – Karen Landay
The finding also fits with research into how music affects our performance outside the lab. According to one 2019 review of the evidence, there has been very little objective, scientific research into how music affects our ability to work – and in those few studies that do exist, it doesn’t seem to be affecting our productivity directly.
For example, one 1995 study found that when workers at a large retail organisation were allowed to listen to personal stereos for four weeks, their performance improved significantly – entering more accounts per hour, for example – in comparison to a group of workers who were given no such privilege.
However, if the music was providing a direct cognitive boost, you would expect the type they listened to and the length of time they spent listening to be important. But this wasn’t the case – their performance improved equally, regardless of how many hours they spent with their stereo or whether they played Mozart or Eminem.
The researchers looked for links with a range of other factors, such as their job satisfaction. But in the end, the only factor that explained the improvements in productivity in the music group was how relaxed they felt. The researchers concluded that this was responsible for the surge, and not the music per se.
The enjoyment factor might also explain why, in a multitude of experiments conducted over nearly a century, many employees have consistently claimed that music improves their productivity – and their employers have confidently agreed with them. But when you actually measure this objectively, the evidence that music helps us to work is extremely murky.
In fact, some scientists think that music doesn’t really help us at all. Instead, it’s possible that we view the ability to listen to music as a gift from our employers, so we convince ourselves that we are working harder in return (though this might not actually be the case). It’s been suggested that this is why employees can react badly to having music taken away – these workers feel that they have already upheld their side of the bargain, and resent having the reward snatched from them.
And as we all know intuitively, in some contexts – such as during particularly complex tasks – music is actively detrimental. This is especially true for tasks which place more of a burden on our working memories, such as problem solving, and music which is less predictable or familiar, and therefore more cognitively demanding, like jazz.
There hasn’t been much research on this in the workplace, but one study found that the reading-comprehension and maths scores of undergraduate students were significantly worse when they completed them to music. It was especially harmful for those whose working memories weren’t as good to begin with.
One study found that jobs that were more cognitively demanding, like programming, allowed workers to listen to music more (Credit: Alamy)
The data suggests that we might benefit from this knowledge. One survey of 4,500 people by the online recruitment agency totaljobsfound that computer programming, data analytics, advertising and marketing – all of which are cognitively demanding – were the four sectors most likely to allow their employees to listen to music.
Our skewed perception of the benefits of music can even have life-threatening consequences. While some research has found that music can help surgeons stay calm and focused, a recent study found that it can make it hard for them to communicate basic instructions. By analysing hospital footage of 20 operations, the researchers calculated that surgeons were five times more likely to have to repeat requests when music was playing – and noted that this extra work can extend the length of operations by more than a minute.
So is music beneficial in the workplace?
One meta-analysis from 2011 concluded that background music “disturbs the reading process, has some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact on emotional reactions and improves achievements in sports”. This might explain why the BBC found that their wartime music programme improved productivity, because building munitions was tedious manual labour rather than intellectually challenging work. It also suggests that music might not be actively helpful in the office – it just makes us feel good.
According to Landay, we still have a long way to go before we truly know the answer. But at the moment, her best guess is that “it depends”. “A person’s response to music changes based on many, many factors, such as the type of job or work, the genre of music, their control over their music listening and their personality.”
Landay explains that there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe, so people should see what feels right for them. “Work environments where individual listening is not possible – such as call centres, retail or services – pose a larger dilemma,” she says.
Hill has a final word of advice. If you are going to broadcast music across a workplace, it’s essential to have a playlist made by someone else. “One of my friends asked me to send him a recommended playlist on Spotify because there's always arguments about who chooses the music in the office. Otherwise you get the rock guy one day and the rap guy the next and they'll hate each other.”
Because music can increase your brain's dopamine levels, the right music can help your work feel more enjoyable. Familiar music can boost productivity levels because it doesn't require focus; however, fast music or music you don't like can lower your productivity levels.Does music help you focus on work? ›
Better yet, if you're struggling to concentrate as you do your homework, a Stanford study has found that music helps you focus.Is it better to listen to music while working or to work in silence essay? ›
Various studies indicate that some people are better at studying with background noise than others. Extroverts and multi-taskers juggle music and study the most efficiently, while anxious fidgeters benefit most from calming, relaxing music. Music is extremely emotive and associative.Why does music help me think better? ›
If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout. Research has shown that listening to music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory.Why music is important? ›
Music improves your health and wellbeing
A study from Harvard has shown that relaxing music may lower blood pressure and heart rate after physical exertion. It can also improve mood and reduce anxiety and through bringing people together, can be an antidote to loneliness and social isolation.
Because music can increase your brain's dopamine levels, the right music can help your work feel more enjoyable. Familiar music can boost productivity levels because it doesn't require focus; however, fast music or music you don't like can lower your productivity levels.Does music actually help you study? ›
Research has shown that music can help you focus, concentrate, relax, feel motivated, improve memory and make the process much more enjoyable. Read on to find out how it can help with your academic performance, and what you should be adding to your playlist, for the most successful study periods.Do we work better in silence? ›
“Prolonged silence can increase brain cells and productivity,” explains Williamson. “And it's really beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing to have periods of silence when our brain can effectively relax and allow everything to settle and slow down.What happens when you listen to music while you work? ›
Listening to music while working is the fastest way to increase dopamine levels in your system. Happy and less stressed employees are more productive employees. While it's important to focus on the task at hand, even more important is your well-being so you can do your best work.Why music is so powerful? ›
Listening to (or making) music increases blood flow to brain regions that generate and control emotions. The limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and controlling memory, “lights” up when our ears perceive music.
Active music-making positively affects neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, that influence mood. Dopamine influences focus, concentration, memory, sleep, mood and motivation. Likewise, serotonin impacts mood, sleep patterns, anxiety and pain.Why does music help so much? ›
Music activates just about all of the brain
The parts of the brain involved in emotion are not only activated during emotional music, they are also synchronized. Music also activates a variety of memory regions. And, interestingly, music activates the motor system.
Music has the ability to deeply affect our mental states and raise our mood. When we need it, music gives us energy and motivation. When we're worried, it can soothe us; when we're weary, it can encourage us; and when we're feeling deflated, it can re-inspire us.What is the most important of music? ›
Well actually, there is one part of the music that any of the most successful music makers today would agree is the most important part; THE MELODY! The melody is the central most important part of any song.How many people work better with music? ›
Studies show that 90% of workers perform better when listening to music, and 88% of employees produce more accurate work.Why do I need music to focus? ›
Music strengthens the auditory, visual/spatial, and motor cortices of the brain. These areas are tied to speech and language skills, reading, reading comprehension, math, problem-solving, brain organization, focus, and attention challenges.How does music help with stress? ›
Music Triggers Pleasure
Excess cortisol fuels your stress levels, and music can help keep them in check. Research shows that cortisol production decreases when you listen to music, which Ringgold says can help take the edge off of that fight-or-flight response. Music also helps boost feel-good chemicals in your brain.
Music can be distracting and lower your stress
In fact, research has shown that it can lessen the impact of depression and anxiety. A study done in 2019 found that college students who listened to classical music every day for two months lowered their levels of anxiety significantly.
With all of the constant noise you hear on a day-to-day basis, embracing silence can help stimulate your brain and help you process information. It can also help you become more self-aware and relieve stress. Embracing silence may also help you settle into the present moment and quiet any racing thoughts.Why is silence powerful at work? ›
Silence enables us to get more done, so it's a great productivity booster. Research shows that people who spend less time talking at the workplace accomplish more and feel less 'stressful' by the end of the week. Silence empowers us to listen effectively. Most of us listen only to respond, not to understand.
Speak up to protect yourself and others, speak up not to regret remaining silent. Speak your mind instead of suppressing your emotions. Speak up because others may not know what you know, so use it as a possibility to educate yourself and broaden your horizons.Does listening to music count as multitasking? ›
We multitask when we think that we are able to handle doing multiple things at once. For example, listening to music while exercising or singing while dancing. These are considered normal to be multitasking.Do you listen to music while you study or work? ›
Background music may improve focus on a task by providing motivation and improving mood. During long study sessions, music can aid endurance. In some cases, students have found that music helps them with memorization, likely by creating a positive mood, which indirectly boosts memory formation.What happens if you listen to a song too much? ›
Frequent exposure to sound over 70 decibels (dB) can cause hearing problems and hearing loss over time. The louder the sound, the quicker it can cause damage.Can music improve listening skills? ›
Listening is one of the skills that must comprehend in learning English. There are many ways to improve listening skill, one of them is using song. Some people like to listen song and it can be used to improve the listening skill.What is the downside to music? ›
There are studies that show, however, that music can impact our mood long-term, increasing depression or anxiety. Certain songs, certain lyrics, certain genres of music are more likely to intensify depression or anxiety, sometimes as much or more as outside stressors and environmental factors.Does reading while listening to music help? ›
Listening to music while reading is a great way to improve the experience of your reading sessions as long as you don't get too distracted. Use Basmo to improve your reading habits and to analyze the way you react to different types of music and become the best reader you can be!What is the true power of music? ›
It has the power to transport us back in time, to calm our worried minds or boost our moods. There really is a song for every emotion.How does music give meaning to life? ›
Music is an important part of our life as it is a way of expressing our feelings as well as emotions. Some people consider music as a way to escape from the pain of life. It gives you relief and allows you to reduce the stress.Do we need music to survive? ›
Typically, our brains release dopamine during behavior that's essential to survival (sex or eating). This makes sense — it's an adaptation that encourages us to do more of these behaviors. But music is not essential in the same way.
Music is one of many ways for coping with overthinking. The key is to distract ourselves with meaningful activities that would clear our mind. With this, we are less likely to be confined by the thoughts that have been bothering and wearing us down.How does music affect behavior? ›
Music affects our behavior by triggering behavioral responses in our brain based on musical pleasure, anticipation, emotions, and memories. It is a stimulus that targets our brain's dopamine system, which is involved in our behaviors. Our brain categorizes music that exceeds our expectations as one that is pleasurable.Can music help clear your mind? ›
Faster music can make you feel more alert and concentrate better. Upbeat music can make you feel more optimistic and positive about life. A slower tempo can quiet your mind and relax your muscles, making you feel soothed while releasing the stress of the day. Music is effective for relaxation and stress management.How does music connect people? ›
With music's deep connection to the limbic system, people tend to find connections in music through memories. Certain songs have a way of taking you to certain time or a specific place in your life. Because of this, we feel a reminiscent connection to music to go along with the emotions it already arouses in us.How does music make you feel? ›
Our favorite melodies release dopamine, known as the feel-good hormone, which activates our brain's pleasure and reward system. Music can have a positive, immediate impact on our mental state; fast tempos can psychologically and physiologically arouse us, helping energize us for the day.How does music help with depression? ›
Listening to live music also has been linked to a release of oxytocin, which is known as the love or trust neurotransmitter. Oxytocin helps us bond with others and socialize, which can be an important part of treating mood disorders like depression.What are the 10 uses of music? ›
- To form the culture.
- To pass information.
- To describe reality.
- To express feelings and emotions.
- To entertain.
- To exchange knowledge and experience.
- To inspire, motivate and make “call to action”.
- To make business and develop the economy.
In fact, music long assisted those working to win civil rights for African Americans. Freedom songs, often adapted from the music of the black church, played an essential role bolstering courage, inspiring participation, and fostering a sense of community.What will happen if there is no music existing in our everyday life? ›
The world would be a very quiet place. Our life without melodies and harmonies would be totally empty. Listening to and playing different tunes help us to remove stress, relax, and it can also help motivate us in trying times. Music has the ability to convey all sorts of emotions.Why do people love music? ›
The key reason people listen to music lies in the reward center of the brain. Listening to pleasurable music activates areas of the reward system. The same brain-chemical system that enables feelings of pleasure from sex, recreational drugs, and food is also critical to experiencing musical pleasure.
Music releases dopamine, a hormone that makes us feel good. These chemicals trigger feelings of pleasure, including guilty pleasure. Besides its therapeutic value, music has many practical values, including social, therapeutic, functioning-enhancement, and self-affirmation.Does music help people with ADHD focus on work? ›
Music therapy for children with ADHD
Their thoughts move at record speed, making it hard to slow down and concentrate on one thing at a time or focus for very long on one task. A study done in 2020 showed that music seemed to improve focus and attentiveness in children diagnosed with ADHD.
Research shows that pleasurable music increases dopamine levels in the brain. This neurotransmitter — responsible for regulating attention, working memory, and motivation — is in low supply in ADHD brains.What kind of music helps you focus? ›
Research has proven that classical tunes are the ultimate focus music. There's even a term for this phenomenon: the Mozart Effect. Listening to classical music when you study arouses your brain, making it easier to absorb new information in a meaningful way.Is it normal to need music to focus? ›
And he's right: Research has shown that music can bolster attention and focus. Here's the longer answer: Some of us need music to drown out distracting sounds around us. Others need it to get their adrenaline going. Others find that the music provides a rhythm for the work they are doing!How does music affect the brain? ›
Listening to (or making) music increases blood flow to brain regions that generate and control emotions. The limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and controlling memory, “lights” up when our ears perceive music.Why do people with ADHD listen to music all the time? ›
Individuals with ADHD are easily distracted by external noise; research shows that repetitive music and sounds have been found to block other random noises and lead to better attention on tasks. Background music also increases focus by decreasing mind-wandering.Do ADHD brains work faster? ›
Many people with ADHD (Inattentive subtype and hyperactive subtype) find their brains work faster than people who don't have ADHD. Your non–linear way of thinking means you can problem solve, catch on to new ideas and have high speed conversations in a way that non–ADHDers just can't.What are people with ADHD good at? ›
These may include hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, conversational skills, spontaneity, and abundant energy. Many people view these benefits as “superpowers” because those with ADHD can hone them to their advantage. People with ADHD have a unique perspective that others may find interesting and valuable.What kind of music do ADHD like? ›
Many people with ADHD gravitate to instrumental music because it generally has a very structured rhythm that helps people focus. 3 In addition, instrumental music is more common because it doesn't have words that can be distracting.
Sound: Many people with ADHD are hypersensitive to auditory stimulants such as multiple simultaneous conversations, loud music, fireworks, or grating noises. For these individuals, such sounds could result in a stress reaction.How does music motivate you? ›
Listening to music also triggers a release of hormones, like dopamine, that can make us feel good! Studies have shown that not only is dopamine released when we listen to a preferred song, but it may be released as often as each beat of that song!What is the best music for work concentration? ›
A music productivity study found that listening to Mozart for even a short time each day could boost something called “abstract reasoning ability.” This is called the “Mozart Effect.” Here's what happened: Researchers took 36 students and divided them into three groups.
Classical and other soothing music can lower the heart rate, blood pressure and levels of the cortisol stress hormone. In addition, classical music increases serotonin production, which helps combat anxiety, panic and depression.
Sixty-four percent of those who listen to music said they had an easier time taking tests, and 80% felt more prepared for class on a regular basis.What sound helps ADHD people? ›
Imagine a deep, static rumble, like the low roar of a jet engine. The sound is called brown noise and has become popular among people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a tool to help them focus or relax.What percent of people focus better with music? ›
Results showed that half of respondents recall regularly listening to music while studying (49%), and 60% said they were able to study better with sound on in the background. Further, this percentage is likely to increase for younger students.