The right music can make your productivity sing. Or hum. Or crescendo.

When you’re in need of motivation, relaxation, or inspiration, do you turn to music? Music can energize us, calm us, make us happy or sad, it can cause us to jump about or to tense up in nervous expectation. Yet when it comes to music at work, all of that stimulation doesn’t always translate into better performance. It turns out that there’s quite a bit of nuance in selecting the right music for the work you’re doing.

One report on the value of music found that 59% of respondents felt that music added to their experience at work, while other surveys have found that music improves people’s job satisfaction and/or performance. But while music may indeed make us feel better and more productive, the research examining actual performance while listening to music isn’t so clear. 

Individual differences in music preferences and personality

The sheer variety of music available today means we are each capable of selecting songs that more precisely match our goals or emotions. This has allowed researchers to begin teasing apart what characteristics of music correlate to what aspects of personality.  

It turns out there is a lot you can tell about someone by simply looking through their music collection. Take sensation seeking, a personality trait where people overlook risk in the pursuit of new and intense experiences. Turns out this trait has close ties to rock music. Then there’s the evidence that extroverts prefer music with exaggerated bass, such as dance and rap. 

Research into how personality relates to music preferences split music along four dimensions: reflective and complex (jazz, blues, classical), intense and rebellious (rock, heavy metal), upbeat and conventional (country, pop), and energetic and rhythmic (rap, electronic). The researchers then correlated these with personality dimensions, and found that openness to experience—a personality construct defined by curiosity, a rich imagination, and aesthetic sensitivity—correlated most strongly with the reflective and intense musical dimensions. Meanwhile, extraversion and agreeableness were correlated to the upbeat and energetic dimensions. 

A study of how musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles went in another direction by dividing people into two categories—empathizers are those who focus on emotions while systemizers are those who focus more on patterns and rules. The empathizers were found to prefer music with low arousal (gentle, warm, and sensual attributes), negative valence (depressing and sad), and emotional depth; the systemizers, on the other hand, preferred music with high arousal (strong, tense, and thrilling), and aspects of positive valence (animated) and cerebral depth (complexity). 

Considering the variability in personality and musical preferences, the first point that should be made is that for us to get a benefit from the music we listen to, we should listen to something we enjoy. A study of music’s link to spatial reasoning found that listening to Mozart increased participants’ scores on a spatial task, giving rise to something called the “Mozart effect,” in which listening to just 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata boosted performance on reasoning tasks. However, it was later found that the Mozart effect is not actually linked to Mozart—the same mental boost could be created simply by playing music people liked listening to. 

All of which tells us that selecting music that you enjoy is the first step in using music to boost productivity. Now let’s look at how the actual selection of your music works.  

Music and cognitive performance

When performing more cognitively-demanding tasks, research suggests that less is more. That’s because as tasks grow in complexity, more of the brain’s mental capacity is needed to meet those demands. Which raises an important point: as good as music feels when you’re listening to it, it is nonetheless a distraction, diverting a portion of your cognitive powers whether you’re actively listening to it or not. 

This was demonstrated in a study into how background music impacts work. The researchers looked at people doing five different tasks with varying types of noise, and found that “Performance was lessened across all cognitive tasks in the presence of background sound (music or noise) compared to silence.” In a related study, people performed worse on a memory task when they had music going in the background—regardless of whether they liked or disliked the music. 

It’s also important to remember that this balance between effort and music exists only when both are taking place simultaneously. Given music’s ability to raise our mood and to motivate us, improvements in performance can be found when music is used before a task. Canadian undergraduates performed better on an IQ test after listening to an up-tempo piece of music composed by Mozart in comparison to a slow piece by Albinoni. 

If your job requires you to think carefully, to focus on something complex, then your music should be turned off or virtually unnoticeable. If music is a must, make it instrumental. People are highly attuned to language, which can make music with lyrics a big distraction. Speech is one of the most distracting aspects of open offices: it is more distracting when it can be understood compared to unintelligible speech; and hearing half of a conversation (like one side of a cell phone call) is more distracting than hearing the whole thing.  

The impact of music on creativity

Where does creativity come into the picture? Creativity is often more fleeting and less focused, involving less rigid thinking and more open-ended contemplation. In fact, creativity can often come as a consequence of being distracted rather than being focused. 

Creativity, unlike focused thinking, can often be improved by dividing or distracting our attention. In 2001 a neuroscientist, Marcus Raichle, identified the brain’s default mode network (DMN), a group of brain regions that become active when we turn our attention away from the world around us, and instead tune into our imagination. This network is responsible for mind wandering—the moments in which our mind is filled with random thoughts as we sit back for the ride. Certain aspects of music have been shown to promote activity in the DMN.  

The role of music largely depends on which type of creativity you’re aiming for. If you’re in a hurry and need to force your inspiration, your music should be sparse, even white or ambient noise. If you’re in need of a flash of insight, the type of a-ha moment that comes when you’re distracted—in the shower, walking through the park—then pump up the volume and lose yourself for a while.  

Learn to pair the right music to the task

The key to selecting music while you’re working depends heavily on the amount of mental effort required by the work you’re doing. The more mentally demanding the work, the less you want complex, active music demanding cognitive resources. As uplifting and inspiring as music can be, it requires mental resources, making it a distraction—although in the case of creative inspiration, a helpful distraction. 

Yet when it comes time to buckle down and get challenging work done, less noise works best. And as your task grows in complexity, your music should sink further into simplicity. By following this simple principle, we might be able to achieve a little more in our intellectual and creative pursuits.