Listening to Music at Work – Good or Bad for Productivity?

Eleanor Clarke, April 5, 2018

I’ve always been a huge believer in headphones. I was given my first Walkman at eight and I’ve never looked back since. At school, I would sit with my headphones hidden under my jumper in maths and quietly work away to whatever angsty band was flavour of the month at the time. As an adult, I average about six hours of solid music a day and have long argued that I’m basically unable to function without that time. Sure, the claim that I can’t function without music seems pretty self-indulgent on the surface but I would argue that no one can function properly without music. It’s just most people don’t know it. Luckily for me, I’m not alone in this claim. In fact, most scientific research is on my side.

The sound and fury of the modern world

Noise is a serious problem in the modern world. Our bodies are hard-wired to react badly to noise that may signal danger.

In the UK in 2016, it’s extremely unlikely we will be eaten by lions. However, the sound of pneumatic drills, fast cars and loud horns have much the same effect on bodies as a lion’s roar. When we hear these noises our brainwaves, heart rate and hormones all team up to send our bodies into stress mode. Prolonged exposure to noise pollution, (such as you would find in any urban area) has been linked to hearing impairment, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, annoyance, sleep disturbance and changes in the immune system. In fact, The World Health Organization Europe’s 2011 report, “Burden of disease from environmental noise,” estimates that noise pollution costs us a staggering $30.8 billion a year in Europe and also takes a day off the life of every adult and child. Not to mention noise pollution seriously hinders our cognitive abilities.

Humans really aren’t very good at processing and filtering excess noise. It’s extremely taxing on our brains. Studies have shown that in offices with high levels of noise pollution productivity is down 66%. That is two thirds of your potential productivity wasted due to distraction and stress. Most of this daily noise pollution can be filtered out with the use of headphones.

Music is the remedy

Music has an entirely different effect on your body. It’s long been understood that music is powerfully liked to emotions but only recently have we begun to understand why. Although music appears to have similar features to language, it is actually far more rooted in our primitive brain structures. These are the oldest bits of our brain and are responsible for things like reward, comfort, fear, aggression and even sex.

Music is first processed in the cerebellum and amygdala these are the bits of our brains that control emotion and movement. But music also connects our emotion centres with our language and memory centres, creating the very powerful effect of synaesthesia. Because we understand music is not a threat to us, this process becomes rewarding and our brain releases large levels of Dopamine (the happiness chemical). It also lowers the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) your adrenal glands produce. Cortisol is the hormone that is responsible giving us the energy to ‘fight or flight’ in stressful situations. It has been key to our survival over the years but when released and not properly utilised, Cortisol can lead to anxiety and high blood sugar levels. This regulating of our chemicals and hormones can have a huge effect on our moods. It can also help to fight depression in the long term.

Managing our emotions

One of the greatest human mysteries is why we produce and consume art. Although most of us agree art is beneficial in some way, on the surface it doesn’t really make sense. Anyone who has ever consumed or produced art will agree that both are costly in time and money, yet for as long as there are humans there will be art.

Like many others, I believe that art plays a big part in helping us manage our emotions in a controlled way. Because art (and especially music) is so linked to our emotions, it allows us to work through feelings such as anger and fear in ways that don’t actually impact on our lives. This is extremely helpful at work because we all know you can’t bring your baggage in. If you’re going through a bad break up, put your head down, listen to Mariah Carey’s greatest hits and cry silently to yourself. It is a much better option than ripping off your colleague’s head.

Sad music is uplifting because it allows us to make sense of and process our feelings. Music can also change your mood and help reinforce positive self perceptions. For instance, I always listen to high tempo boastful rap music before a challenge, such as a job interview because it makes me feel invincible. When I write I listen to classical music because it calms and focuses my mind.

The Mozart effect

There’s a long enduring myth that listening to classical music (especially Mozart) will make you smarter. We’ve all heard about new mothers playing piano concertos to their infant children, in the hopes of raising a little polymath. But actually, how much truth is there to this claim? Unfortunately, not a lot. There is no magic cheat to becoming a genius. The original study that found students preformed better while listening to Mozart is now widely understood to have been extremely limited and only showed us part of a much broader picture. However, music does effect your intellectual abilities in many ways. Learning to play instruments has untold positive effects on the brain. Becoming an instrumentalist involves solving problems, learning to listen closely and learning to deal with abstract structures. These skills are undeniably helpful in other pursuits such as languages, mathematics and even business.

Listening to a wide variety of music makes us more knowledgeable, cultured and emotionally intelligent. For instance, someone has analysed the entire back catalogue of the rapper ‘Asop Rock’ and discovered he has much larger vocabulary than William Shakespeare. Imagine what having access to that vocabulary is doing for his fans? Listening to Mozart will not make you instantly understand the theory of relativity but it is doing you more good than harm.

While the Mozart study doesn’t prove the claims it’s constantly used to peddle, it also wasn’t a complete waste of time. It showed us many things about the nature of music and work. The reason the students who were listening to Mozart out performed their peers who were not, is because they were happy and engaged during the test. They were enjoying the music and this in turn was having a positive effect on their cognitive abilities. When the study was repeated with pop music and even audio books the results remained the same. The important factor was not Mozart, it was engagement and happiness. This is now understood to be so important to our cognitive abilities that before you can be tested for dementia, you must first be tested for depression and anxiety. This is because people who are depressed or anxious will commonly perform as badly on an aptitude test as someone in the early stages of dementia.

All of us have aspects of our jobs that we don’t like, we consider them robotic, unchallenging and unfulfilling. However, listening to our favourite music while performing these tasks can help us maintain focus and perform better.

The physical effects

Something else that is often forgotten about office work is that it’s very tough on our bodies. Humans were not built to sit down for hours at a time. The single most common case of sick leave is back-ache. In the UK, it is estimated that three million people are on long-term sick leave due to back pain and a further six million people are living with undiagnosed chronic back pain. While music alone will not change this, it is believed that it can genuinely alleviate psychical pain. Although it still isn’t fully understood why, many scientists believe this is linked to the release of Dopamine and the distraction from pain that music provides. Other studies seem to indicate that music actively blocks the pain signals from your spinal chord to your brain. Add in the fact that music has many other positive effects on your overall health such as lowering blood pressure, reduce anxiety and stress and easing muscle tension, etc; It suddenly becomes obvious why music therapy is a commonly used as a technique by doctors the world over.

So there you have it folks, the scientific case for wearing headphones at work. Of course it goes without saying that headphones are not appropriate all the time. If a task heavily relies on you communicating with colleagues, you definitely should not have your headphones in. However, listening to music through headphones can actively improve productivity, cognitive ability and your mental and physical health. So, take that! Miss Hall (My secondary school maths teacher).