Gulp. Listening To Music At Work Is Bad For You

Here’s a story to hide from your boss. Listening to music at work may get in the way of your productivity.  A new study suggests that doing so may actually hurt work performance.

Researchers from the University of Wales examined how music preference affected performance. Can we work as well while listening to our favorite tunes compared to music we dislike? While previous studies have focused on participants listening to music before completing a task, this study required subjects to listen to music during task performance.

Researchers studied 25 undergraduates between ages 18-30 who volunteered to participate. Only those who disliked thrash metal were included in the study. In order to do the study, it was necessary to find a type of music that all participants agreed they hated to use as the constant.

The participants tried to recall a list of 8 consonants in the order they were presented while exposed to several different sound environments

  • Quiet
  • Liked, self-selected music (participants brought in one of their favorite songs)
  • Disliked music (Thrasher music)
  • Changing-state speech (a sequence of random digits such as “4, 7, 1, 6,” a chaotic sound)
  • Steady-state speech (“3, 3, 3, 3,” a sound similar to a ticking clock)

Recall ability was poorest for the music and changing-state conditions. The best recall occurred during the quiet and steady state environments. In this study, listening to any music, whether liked or disliked, impaired performance. According to the research study, “Despite liking and deeming their self-selected music as more pleasant than the other sound conditions, their performance was actually as poor in this condition as in the condition with music that they actually disliked.”  That’s right, even if it’s the music you love, listening interferes with your work.

This research suggests that peace and quiet may offer a performance edge. However, those performing repetitive tasks requiring less focus – moving boxes in a warehouse, for instance – might benefit from music in the background. In other words, it depends on the work. Additionally, there has been studies that prove listening to music before you work, can help motivate you and help you do your job.

Before you crank up that IPod, remember that a quiet area may be your best bet for efficiency on the job. Better yet, take a “music break” before tackling the task at hand.

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  • Well, the next to the last paragraph states that “it depends on the work”. So why does the article title state something different?

  • Couldn’t disagree more with this study’s findings, although take what I say with a grain of salt because it is purely anecdotal, and my own experience. With that said, I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. In a thinly partitioned/cubicle environment, I find it highly difficult to focus on my work without the assistance of music. I typically play dub step, house, ambient, and progressive trance (or just lots of Deadmau5, Sasha, Ulrich Schnauss, and Armin van Buren) to provide a consistent, controlled work environment. I try to avoid all music with vocals while working as the lyrics distract me. Classical music has a similar effect although the repetition isn’t nearly as consistent as electronica. My thinking is that if I play music that requires minimal attention and provides a consistent work rhythm, I can focus more efficiently on my work.

  • Depends on the work.. and depends on the music.. Even if it does you better start whiping your boss and tell him to back the fuck off.

  • true!
    if you NEED listen to music while working then it means that you have a weak power of concentration. I wouldnt hire mediocre people like you.

  • I cant concentrate on my work (programmer) without music. If its quiet my mind starts to wander onto other subjects.

  • Have to disagree with the studied findings, as I find music to be a lift to attitude and energy level at my tech job. From a mental perspective it “gets the creative juices flowing”. While working in a “quiet” environment is possible, where is a quiet environment realistic anymore? If you are in the office, you have office chatter and sounds around you, and if you work from home, you have typical “home” noise (unless you’ve created a sound proof cage to work from). Music acts as a focus, hardly the detriment that the study attempts to prove.

  • Hmmm strange… In my younger years I went to raves & houseparties and listened to that music, but nowadays, I don’t listen to music at home.

    Now, at work, when there is a lot of noise I plug in my earphones & put on trash-metal. I can’t explain it, but I can concentrate a lot better with trash-metal than with singing or heavy rhythms.
    An annoying fact of earplugs however, is that people tend to talk much in a noisy environment, so they start asking BS questions, and you have to take out the plugs just to hear about someones ride to work.

  • This is BS. A recent study by a professor of music at NYU show the exact opposite. Music and rhythm actually increase productivity and focus on many levels. Which is why people have used music and rhythm while working since the dawn of human civilization.

  • What about the people that like “Thrash Metal”. I’m pretty sure it makes me work harder and faster. This study is lacking in more ways than one

  • I have 3 types of work:

    1-WHEN I USE MY BRAINS, high concentration, silence is golden. No noise for me, please.

    2-WHEN I USE MY HEAD, low concentration, I listen to music.

    3-WHEN I USE MY HANDS, no concentration, I listen to audio books.

  • The underlying construct here is the idea of external stimuli – in this case music – “warming” up the brain so that it functions at a higher level (Stenberg et al.) – My own undergraduate study showed that noise – in the form of tones – did improve performance on a physical reaction time box and I have been fascinated by the growth in interest in this area of study. The thing that seems to be missing from most of these studies is a deeper examination of the nature of the music that they use. The more popular studies asked participants to bring in music that they like – although they didn’t state exactly what this music was most of the literature refers to the music as songs. In our own studies we have found that songs (tracks with understandable lyrics) tend to be worse at facilitating cognitive actions than instrumental music. We hypothesize that songs occupy the language centers and therefore direct focus away from a cognitive task – whereas instrumental music can act as the low level background stimulus but do it in a much more pleasurable way than simple tones. I’d love to see a study that compared the efficacy of instrumental music versus favorite songs when it came to a real cognitive task such as writing an article, writing code, researching a paper – we’re betting instruemtnal music will win out. Andrew

  • Although the statement of this article could be true in some situations, I believe that there are more important factors for “productivity”, such as actually enjoying the work you do.
    We spend more hours working than anything else, so if listening to music you like will help you enjoy your work even more and decrease your anxiety levels, then that should not be mentioned as something that “is bad for you”.

  • This article assumes you have a choice between music and silence.

    What if your choice is music or often loud and often annoying co-workers?

    What percentage of workers have access to silenece? So few that the article has no practical value.

    • @guy_who_reads I keep a pair of noise reducing ear plugs in my desk drawer. They are the kind that you can compress and place in the ear canal. I can still hear some one when they come to my desk to talk with me and I can hear people when I talk on the phone. If I have to go to a meeting in an other room I remove the plugs, knowing that if I need to I can replace them when I go back to my desk.

  • One issue that isn’t addressed is that in the real world, the worker can quit. If my boss were stupid enough to try to tell me I couldn’t listen to my music, I would start looking for a new job. So the company will lose weeks of productive time replacing me, and training my replacement. This can be a major factor if it’s a job requiring a great deal of training/experience to preform. You can’t hire Joe Six-Pack off the street, and expect him to be a brain surgeon by the end of the day.

  • I listen to music at work to drown out the rest of the office and in that sense it keeps me distraction free.

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