Many people like to listen to music while they work, or to at least have some sort of noise in the background. Fortunately, research shows that this is beneficial, since music and background noise offer various cognitive benefits when it comes to factors such as productivity and creativity.
In the following article, you will first learn about the benefits of listening to music and background noise while you work. Then, you will see some helpful guidelines on how to pick the best kind of music or background noise to listen to, so you can make the most of this effect.
The benefits of music and background noise
Research shows that listening to music or to some background sounds while you work or study can lead to various benefits. For example:
- Listening to music temporarily improves performance on tests measuring intelligence and various cognitive functions.
- Listening to ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks.
- Listening to music helps maintain concentration when performing repetitive tasks over long periods of time.
- Listening to white noise improves people’s recognition memory, which is the ability to recognize previously encountered objects, entities, and events.
- Listening to music improves people’s ability to perform mental arithmetic.
- Listening to background music during a lecture improves students’ ability to learn the material.
- Listening to music energizes people when dealing with monotonous tasks.
- Listening to music improves students’ reading comprehension.
- Listening to ambient noise enhances people’s abstract processing, which is the ability to think about things that are not concretely defined.
- Listening to music improves people’s mood and increases their work satisfaction.
Overall, based on the research on the topic that we saw above, music and background noise can be said to offer three main benefits:
- Improved cognitive performance.
- Improved ability to concentrate.
- Improved mood.
Taken together, these benefits mean that listening to music or to some other background noise while you work can be highly beneficial. Furthermore, since it generally takes little effort to set up some background music while you work, this effect is relatively easy to take advantage of.
Why music and background sounds are beneficial
There are various cognitive and neural mechanisms which are involved in the way we perceive music and in the way that we benefit from it, and these mechanisms are explored in the field of neuromusicology. Essentially, since listening to music offers such a wide variety of benefits in different domains of cognition, there is no single cognitive mechanism which explains why listening to music is beneficial.
However, it’s possible to attribute a notable portion of the benefits of music to the positive effect that it has on people’s mood while they work. This is based on the fact that when people enjoy a certain task, they also tend to perform better on it, which could explain why listening to music has a positive effect on so many different cognitive mechanisms.
How to pick what to listen to while you work
What type of music to pick
When it comes to deciding what type of music to listen to while you work, you should generally try to avoid songs that contain lyrics, especially if they’re relatively complex, since lyrics can often be distracting, and might end up hindering your performance.
If you nevertheless prefer to listen to music with lyrics, consider listening to songs with lyrics that are relatively repetitive, since those lyrics will likely be less distracting. An alternative option is to listen to songs with lyrics in a foreign language that you don’t understand, which might also be less distracting than lyrics that you can understand.
In addition to avoiding lyrics, you should generally also avoid songs that contain complex, varied, or extreme structures, in terms of factors such as the speed of the instruments or their sound level. This means that you should look for music that has a relatively consistent rhythm as well as a narrow range of sound levels.
Classical music is often recommended as beneficial, and some studies have even referred to the Mozart Effect as a phenomenon where classical music leads to a significant improvement in people’s cognitive performance. However, research on the topic suggests that while the performance benefits from classical music do exist, they are similar, in terms of scope and scale, to the benefits offered by listening to similar types of music.
This doesn’t mean that classical music isn’t a good choice. Rather, it simply means that classical music shouldn’t be seen as uniquely preferable to other, similar types of music.
Finally, video-game soundtracks are also often recommended as a good type of music to have in the background while you work or study. The reason for this is that video-game soundtracks are supposed to help you stay energized and focused, without being too much of a distraction.
There is obviously quite a bit of variation between the soundtracks of different games, so you will have to spend some time searching for the sort of video-game music that suits your needs. However, the same is true of almost any music genre, and so this isn’t a reason not to use video-game soundtracks as background music, since they can often work well when it comes to helping you concentrate.
Overall, there are many different types of music that you can listen to while you work or study. In general, you should avoid music that might be distracting, which means that you should look for music that doesn’t have lyrics but which does have a relatively consistent rhythm and structure.
Classical music and video-game soundtracks are often recommended as good types of music to listen to while you work, since they generally satisfy all the requirements which are mentioned above. However, they are not inherently better than similar music from other genres, as long as that music also satisfies all the necessary requirements.
What type of background sounds to use
Sometimes, instead of listening to music, it can be better to listen to some general background noise. Whether or not this is preferable depends on factors such as your personal preferences, as well as the task that you’re engaged in.
Similarly to music, when it comes to background noise you should aim for sounds that are relatively consistent and moderate, and that don’t contain distinct human speech. Such noises can include anything from the sound of light rain, to the sound of wind, or the sound of waves.
In addition to these types of natural sounds, some people prefer using a more neutral and synthetic form of background noise, such as white noise, pink noise, or Brownian noise, all of which have different properties, which will appeal to different people in different scenarios.
Note that it’s relatively easy to find all these types of background sounds and noises online, or to generate them using one of many apps.
How loud should the music or background sounds be
When it comes to listening to music while you work, the optimal level of sound which is generally suggested is around 65 dB – 75 dB, where 70 dB is about as loud as a normal conversation taking place a few feet away from you.
However, similarly to picking what type of music or background noise to listen to, the optimal sound level that you should choose depends on various factors, such as your personal preferences and the task that you’re performing at the time.
When deciding what the optimal sound level is for you, you should make sure that the sound isn’t too low, in which case you won’t hear it well enough to benefit from it, but you should also make sure that it isn’t too high, in which case it will become distracting and hinder your performance.
Furthermore, you should never set the music to a volume that is high enough to cause hearing damage, even if you feel that it’s making you more productive. A general guideline to remember is that if the music is causing you to experience ear pain or even general discomfort, then you should significantly lower the volume.
Find the music or noise that works best for you
When it comes to deciding what music or background noise to listen to while you work, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you should pick something that you like. Don’t pick music that you don’t enjoy just because it’s recommended as beneficial by others, since listening to music that you dislike is generally ineffective when it comes to improving your mood and cognitive performance.
This means that you should try to experiment and find out what works for you. The efficacy of different types of music varies between different people and for different tasks under different circumstances, so there isn’t a single type of music or background noise that is a perfect fit for everyone.
Accordingly, when deciding what to listen to and what volume, you should take the following factors into consideration:
- The type of task that you are working on. For example, you might benefit more from listening to a different type of music when working on a creative task than you would when working on a computational task.
- The difficulty of the task. For example, you might benefit more from lower noise levels when working on a difficult task compared to when working on an easy task.
- Personal background factors. For example, if you get easily distracted then you might prefer to listen to music at a lower level than most people do.
- Personal preferences. For example, you might prefer to listen to songs with lyrics, despite the fact that it makes it harder for most people to concentrate.
Other situations where music and background noise are beneficial
Beyond performance in general tasks, music and background noise can also be beneficial in other situations. For example:
- Natural sounds, such as running water and chirping birds, can help you relieve stress, which is in line with the fact that exposure to natural elements helps you de-stress and feel better.
- Listening to background music helps people feel more comfortable with each other, which leads them to communicate better and enjoy conversations more.
- Listening to music can help alleviate pain, reduce feelings of depression, and improve recovery after surgery.
Furthermore, beyond these benefits, music and ambient noise can also be useful in a variety of situations, by helping you set an appropriate atmosphere. This can include anything from helping you feel more energized during a workout, to helping you relax before falling asleep.
Caveat about the benefits of music and background noise
It’s important to remember that there are cases where silence is the best option.
For example, if the only music available is music that you dislike or find distracting, which might happen, for example, if you’re working in a shared space, then you might prefer to use something such as noise-canceling earphones in order to dim the noise.
Furthermore, silence can also be beneficial in other situations, in which music or background noise might have some sort of a negative influence. For example, if you’re working on a verbal task which requires a high degree of concentration, or if you’ve been listening to music for a while now and need a break, then you might prefer to not have any music on.
As such, if you feel that music or background noise is hurting you in some way, feel free to turn it off or find some way to block it. This is a perfectly acceptable course of action, and as noted above, there is a huge degree of variability when it comes to the influence of music and noise, so there can many situations where they will do more harm than good.
Summary and conclusions
- Listening to music and background noise while you work or study leads to a variety of cognitive benefits, including increased productivity, enhanced creativity, and an improved ability to concentrate.
- There are various cognitive mechanisms that are associated with the cognitive benefits of listening to music. Many of them have to do with the fact that listening to music improves people’s mood, which in turn improves performance in other domains of cognition.
- Music and background noise can also be beneficial in situations that don’t directly involve working or studying, such as when they help you relax before going to sleep, or become energized while working out.
- In general, the best type of music or background noise to listen to are those that have no lyrics and no distinct human speech, and which are generally repetitive and consistent in terms of factors such as rhythm and sound level. The optimal volume for both music and background noise is generally around 70 dB, which is about as loud as a conversation taking place a few feet away from you.
- Which music or background sound will work best in your case depends on a variety of factors, such as the type of task that you’re working on and your personal preferences. You should experiment and try out different options, in order to find the type of music or background noise that works best for you.