working with music

Listening to Music While Working from Home

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Why You Should Listen to Music While Working at Home

Listening to music is proven to lighten your mood, increase happiness, decrease stress, and provoke analytical thinking, among many other beneficial brain activities. While working from home can be less hectic than the office, there are still present distractions from kids, pets, nearby construction, and/or cars driving down the road outside. When your work environment gets noisy and distracting, music can deliver much-needed relief on the job. However, before you start your next playlist, you should have a handle on when your tunes will be most beneficial for you and your brain while listening to music while working from home.

listening to music at home

When Should You Listen to Music?

The times it is appropriate to listen to music are largely dependent upon your environment, your preference for music, and the type of tasks you will be doing. This chart illustrates a simple diagram of when you should and should not be listening to music while working from home.

when to listen to music chart

Learning Tasks: Nope!

Learning requires your brain to analyze and remember instructions and facts. When there is music playing in the background, your brain has to process auditory data in addition to processing the concepts you are reading or being instructed on. Because of this multitasking, the brain can be prone to interpret the instructions and facts improperly, either making abnormal associations or making mistakes about what’s important enough to store in your memory. Thus, if you have to learn something at work, it’s best to turn off your music, especially if you’re learning verbally or through reading.

Creative Tasks & Conference Calls: Nope!

Similar to the learning something new example, creative work is not an ideal time to listen to music. The challenge with this work task is that listening to music and working on a creative project generally feels more fun. However, the music during this type of task does not necessarily make you more productive! The key here is to avoid scenarios that will compete for your valuable intellectual horse power. Creative tasks for the knowledge worker working from home can include, building a new slide deck, responding to a complex email, writing reports, or participating in a video conference call.

Noisy Area: Absolutely!

If your home office is noisy from people at home or kids playing outside, then your brain will try to handle all the individual pieces of data in the noise. All that data processing takes energy you otherwise could have repurposed for focusing on your job. Because of this, productivity can go down, even if doing your required task doesn’t require you to learn. In this scenario, listening to music while working from home can actually help, because it blocks out the other excessive external noises that could overwhelm your thoughts and enables you to keep a calmer working mentality.

Repetitive Tasks: Absolutely!

Various studies have indicated that, in general, people who listened to music while working on repetitive tasks performed faster and made fewer errors. These results occurred because the music that sounds pleasing triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which help you feel relaxed and happy and, therefore, aid in focusing on the task at hand.

when to listen to music while working

This is true even when the task you’re doing is complex. For example, surgeons routinely listen to music in the operating room specifically because it relieves the stress that could compromise their focus and performance. When I was in high school, I had the unique opportunity to shadow a neurosurgeon, and was surprised to learn that he liked listening to Evanescence during surgery!

For the other knowledge workers out there who “think for a living” (e.g. engineers, accountants, bankers, programmers, and academics), repetitive tasks can also include setting up an Excel model, writing simple emails, or general data entry and data manipulation tasks. An improved mood from music also affects how you interact with your co-workers (albeit through Zoom). If you feel better, you usually are more respectful, patient, and cooperative, which can lead to better teamwork.

New Music: Nope!

When you listen to music that you have not heard before, the act of listening to music actually surprises and distracts your brain from its current thought process. Your body releases dopamine in response to this “newness,” causing you to feel some degree of pleasure. That ultimately can make the music more appealing than whatever other task you’re trying to do, drawing your attention to the tune and compromising your focus on work.

How Your Personality Effects Your Productivity With Music

distracted music productivity

Are you easily distracted?

Listening to music while working from home does not appear to impair or benefit performance equally for everyone. If you consider yourself prone to boredom and craving of external stimulations, then you might be better off working or doing other cerebral work without music in the background, at least not music that is too complex. Past research has generally considered boredom propensity to be associated with lower levels of self-control and being more impulsive, and this could fit with the suggestion that easily distracted knowledge workers are more distracted by background music.

Do you crave less stimulation?

On the other hand, if you are less craving of stimulation, then oddly enough some background music can boost your intellectual performance. This suggests that traditional research findings indicated that the relationship between music and task performance is not ‘one-size-fits-all’.

What type of music should you avoid?

The type of music you listen to plays a critical role in your ability utilize it for staying effective on the job. Research suggests there are certain factors that can determine whether music is distracting while working from home. The factors that determine whether music will be distracting include complex musical structure, use of lyrics, a person’s listening habits, difficulty of work tasks, and level of control on the music.

Use of Lyrics

While working, it can be very hard to concentrate when people are talking. Similarly, listening to music with lyrics is almost as distracting. Music can be considered a form of multi-tasking, where the listener is switching back and forth between a task and the music, as opposed to the music simply existing in the background. Lyrics can distract, as they cause you to focus on the meaning of what you are listening to and interrupt your thought process. It is best if lyrical music is avoided when working.

listening to music while working

Complex Structure

Songs with a more complex musical structure, such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” can be more distracting to listeners when compared to songs with a simple three-chord structure, such as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. If you are going to listen to songs with lyrics, its best to at least keep the songs simple.

Your Listening Habits

If someone has built a habit around listening to music while working from home, it’s often more beneficial than distracting. The power of habit can be an excellent technique to ensure productivity while working from home. A key insight from this technique suggests that exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success directly tied to a robust implementation of daily habits.

Level of Control

If you are co-working at home with your spouse or kids, then you may be at the mercy of their musical preferences as well. If you cannot setup a separate room for your home office, then you will need to either put in headphones to drown out the noise of the other music or embrace the existing music with the hope that it does not distract you too much.

What Type of Music Works Well?

types of music for working from home
Image by TheCarColony

Nature Music

Listening to the sounds of nature can help supplement cognitive function and concentration. Soothing sounds such as flowing water, rainfall, and rustling leaves work well, whereas jolting nature sounds such as birds singing and stampeding elephants can be distracting while working. Another benefit of this type of music is it helps you visualize yourself in a relaxing setting such as a national park, which can have a calming effect while working on a stressful project for work.

Classical Music

Research shows that listening to music can raise dopamine levels, and multiple studies have found that listening to classical music can be a valuable tool in treating depression. So, listening to classical music while you study won’t literally make you smarter, but you’ll feel better while doing it, so at least there’s that! The challenge is finding playlists that do not include a complex structure. Some typical classical music composers that I have found effective for listening to while working are Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven.

Epic Music

I have grown particularly fond of classical music in modern movie sound tracks, such as tracks by Hans Zimmer. I like this type of playlist because it jumps between Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and even Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly, the music has some harsh sounds that may be distracting, but I find it typically helps me get in the zone regardless. Maybe I am just one of those people who always listens to music while working? Check out the Spotify playlist now.

Video Game Music

Music from video games is a great choice because the compositions are specifically designed to enhance your gaming experience. For starters, try the Halo or Bastion soundtracks. These types of soundtracks are specifically designed to complement your gameplay in a manner that improves your focus.

Ambient Soundtracks

Another type of background music that works well for working from home is ambient music, such as the type of music you would hear while getting a massage while on a beach vacation. I have found this type of music the best in terms of relaxing background music. It’s is such good background music that I will frequently forget that it is even on!

White Noise Background

Lastly, if you really have difficulty with any type of music playing, but still want to enjoy the benefits of drowning out background noises and distractions, then your best bet is to give white noise a try. The name white noise comes from the analogy to white light, which contains the whole spectrum of colors of light. Not only is this helpful while working, but it also can be used to help you fall asleep at night or during a daytime power nap.

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