There are three kinds of engineers.
- Those who need complete silence while they’re coding
- Those who can work anywhere while just tuning out the noise in the background
- Those who put on their headphones, throw on the perfect playlist, and get to work
But does this all come down to personal choice, or is one method superior to the others?
Science tells us that programmers who listen to music while they code might actually have an edge over their colleagues. Studies have also shown that people who listen to music while they work tend to be in better moods, produce work with fewer mistakes, and work more efficiently.
The science around the link between music and productivity is worth considering.
Think the right playlist could take your coding to the next level? You may be right.
There are a ton of different studies that show how music might affect productivity, but in more roundabout ways.
1. Music Puts You in a Good Mood
One of the best ways music can help boost your productivity is by putting you in a better mood.
A study published in Trends in Cognitive Science found that music does better at combating stress and anxiety than actual anti-anxiety medication. Patients in the study who were about to undergo surgery were either given an anti-anxiety medicine or told to listen to music. At the end of the study, the participants who listened to music had lower tracked levels of the stress-induced hormone cortisol, indicating they had been less stressed for the duration of the study.
That’s not directly related to productivity, but you already know you do better work when you’re not stressed, anxious, or grouchy. If music has the ability to elevate your mood, you can use that to boost your productivity at work times.
2. Music Can Make Repetitive Tasks More Bearable
Another study, published by the JAMA Network, showed that surgeons tasked with repetitive tasks in the lab (outside of performing surgery) showed improved performance when they worked while listening to music. Researchers concluded they did better work because listening to music eased some of the boredom that comes with doing rote tasks.
Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, agrees with that study’s findings. In his book, he wrote that music can make repetitive tasks more enjoyable, and make it easier to concentrate while you’re doing them.
3. Listening to Music Between Tasks Can Boost Productivity
Should you only listen to music during your breaks? Maybe!
A study published in the journal Psychology of Music found that when students listened to music in between tasks, they were able to concentrate for longer stretches of time and ultimately performed better academically. However, the studies that have been done on the link between music and productivity don’t make an open-and-shut case for picking out a playlist for workdays.
There’s some science that indicates music might make you less productive in certain circumstances.
4. The Music You Choose Can Boost or Lower Your Productivity
In other studies, researchers found that not all music is created equal when it comes to productivity. A number of studies done on background music in the workplace had similar findings: instrumental music gave workers a boost in how much work they could get done in a short amount of time. But on the other hand, music that had lyrics tended to distract workers and actually caused their productivity to decline.
What science says on this subject isn’t perfectly clear.
Some studies contradict each other. There’s research that says listening to music while you work can be beneficial. There’s other research that says music can be a hindrance to doing good work. Almost every study seems to indicate that music or no music depends on the situation, the person, the type of work, and other factors.
So, to boil it all down, here are a few seemingly science-supported rules to keep in mind when considering whether to hit “play” on your work playlist:
1. Choose Music that Won’t Distract You
Science says music can be a productivity booster, or a distraction.
So err on the side of music that’s less likely to distract you, like instrumental tracks with no lyrics. If you must have lyrics, consider music in a language you don’t understand, or songs you’ve heard so many times, you can tune them out into the background.
2. If You Need to Concentrate, Stick to Music During Breaks
Consider the project you plan to work on. If it requires heavy concentration, you might be better off without music playing while you work. Instead, play music during periodic breaks.
Remember that study that said music in between tasks can boost productivity?
Lean into that.
3. Mind the Volume
There’s a lot of science related to how loudly you play your music, and how that can affect your work.
For example, even if your music is distracting, playing it at a volume just loud enough to drown out background noise in the office might protect you from more distracting things.
And one study from the University of Illinois showed that playing music very quietly might help while doing focused work, but turning up the volume to a medium level can boost creativity.