The Music of Your (Work) Life

Well, yes and no …

I’ve been in business long enough that I can remember a time when it was pretty commonplace for the radio to be playing in the background in offices and other work settings.  Sometimes the result of doing so was a bit distracting – most especially during radio program commercial breaks, but also the general distraction of hearing the radio announcers.

These days, the only workplace where I hear the radio playing is at the office of my dentist.  Perhaps they think their patients don’t have any choice but to sit captive in the operatory chair, so it doesn’t matter if the “irritation quotient” is high or not.

On the other hand, one of the things workers can do today is craft their own streaming-service playlists, filled with the kind of music that they prefer to hear.  And with so many people working from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s little surprise that playlists have become increasingly popular.

One question we might ask is if the music we listen to while working helps with our productivity, or hinders it.

It’s a topic that’s of interest to companies such as OnBuy.  This UK-based online marketplace has conducted a study of ~3,000 people, enlisting them to complete ten short tasks with music playing in the background to find out how many of the tasks they could complete when various different songs were playing.

The research subjects worked their tasks while hearing a range of different songs – and as it turns out, there were significant differences in productivity based on the songs that were playing.

According to the OnBuy study, the most productive music to work or study by were these five songs:

  • My Love (Sia)
  • Real Love (Tom Odell)
  • I Wanna Be Yours (Arctic Monkey)
  • Secret Garden (Bruce Springsteen)
  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Bobbie McFerrin)
Don’t Worry, Be Productive: Bobby McFerrin

The research participants were able to complete an average of six of the ten assigned tasks within the duration of those five songs.

At the other end of the scale, these songs were determined to be poor for productivity, with participants able to complete just two of the assigned tasks, on average, while they were playing:

  • Dancing With Myself (Billy Idol)
  • Roar (Katy Perry)
The Pointer Sisters: Everyone’s excited, but productivity takes a beating.

And at the bottom of the barrel? Of the songs tested, I’m So Excited by the Pointer Sisters was the worst one for productivity.

More generally, the OnBuy study discovered an inverse correlation between a song’s beats per minute (BPM) and productivity levels:  The higher the BPM, the less productive people were in completing their assigned tasks.

This is probably why I’m much more productive when listening to music that has practically no BPM associated with it – whether it’s the ambient music of Brian Eno, piano preludes by Claude Debussy, or the nature music of Frederick Delius.

Of course, when it comes to work productivity, nothing beats complete silence.  That’s the surefire way to be the most productive – but it isn’t nearly as nice, is it?

How about you?  What kind of music appeals to you — and works for you — while working?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

3 thoughts on “The Music of Your (Work) Life

  1. I am a writer – -about classical music as it happens – -and I face a different problem. I can’t put words on the page creatively and effectively if the music in the background has vocals. It has to be instrumental, or the words of the lyrics get in the way of the words I’m trying to think up. I can write over the racket of a symphony, if need be, but not over singers or a chorus.

    The current style of shrieking and howling in pop songs repels me. I haven’t liked anything since Doris Day and Julie Andrews. So, if I ever have to set foot in an office again, no music, please!

  2. I agree with Steven Kruger’s comment. If I’m trying to do any writing, instrumental music is best. I like having it on in the background even if only to lessen the impact of my ever-present tinnitus.

    But every once in a while when I need an energy boost, I do queue up one of the many “happy” playlists on Apple Music.

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