What music makes productivity rock?

by the Southern Cross Team
Wednesday , 18 July 2018 - 2-3 minute read
A woman with headphones on smiles while looking at her tablet computer
Thinking well

Since we first sang in the fields, music has been a part of the workplace – and it remains the case. Today, 85% of workers say they enjoy listening to music while they work and 71% believe it improves their productivity.1 And most employers seem to agree with this conclusion.2

But can music actually increase performance? There is some good brain-science to suggest it can.

Your brain on music

Listening to music can do wonderful things to our minds, which may aid productivity. It can:

  • Release dopamine to improve your mood and motivation3
  • Create a neural connection between your emotions and critical thinking to improve creative problem solving4
  • Stop your unconscious mind distracting your conscious mind from the task at hand5

Music that works hard for your workplace

From the ‘Mozart effect’, (which suggests listening to the composer’s music can temporarily raise our IQ) to the activation theory (which argues music can help lift activity in our brains to an optimal level for performing tasks), the impact of music on performance has been poked and prodded by researchers for decades, producing often conflicting results.6

What researchers believe today is music can have a positive effect on workplace performance, but that impact seems to be indirect, and mediated by mood, emotion, personality and context.7

So the right music for you is probably the music you enjoy the most and feel like listening to (with a few caveats that we’ll discuss in a minute).

"There are probably some features in music that make you feel a certain way, but it's your experience with it that is even more important," says Neuroradiologist Jonathan Burdette M.D.8

Can you have too much of a good thing?

Sometimes we all find music distracting, even our favourite tunes. Dr Teresa Lesiuk of Miami University suggests we can work out when music helps and hinders our performance at work by considering five factors9:

  1. Musical Structure – simple tunes, like the Beatles “She loves you”, are easier to work to than complex music like free jazz, which is more demanding and distracting.
  2. Lyrics – our brain is hardwired to tune-in to words, so music without lyrics can be less distracting.
  3. Habits – if you’re used to working to music, you’ll probably find it more beneficial, and vice-versa if you’re not.
  4. Task Complexity – the more mentally challenging the task, the more likely it is music will distract your focus.
  5. Control – If you choose the music, you’re more likely to find it helps your performance, – rather than your neighbour saying, “Do you mind if I crank up the volume? There’s a sweet accordion solo coming up next.”

Simply put, what’s best for your team and your workplace will depend on each individual and their context de jour.

Tips for playing music at work

  • Embrace headphones at work where appropriate, and their safe use.
  • Encourage people to play instrumental music when working on more demanding tasks.
  • Create quiet spaces or flexible work arrangements, so people can choose to work on some tasks without music too.
  • Encourage people to share their playlists – it can be great for creating team empathy across generations, and help people experiment with different music.

Want to learn more about the health benefits of music at work? Check out “How music at work makes us better” or “Play it safe with headphones”.


  1. Accounttemps. (2018, September 17). Most Professionals Like Listening To Music At Work And Are More Productive When They Do, Survey Shows - Sep 17, 2018. Retrieved from http://rh-us.mediaroom.com/2018-09-17-Most-Professionals-Like-Listening-To-Music-At-Work-And-Are-More-Productive-When-They-Do-Survey-Shows
  2. Wong, V. (2012, June 30). Music Boosts Workplace Productivity, Licensers Claim - Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-06-29/music-boosts-workplace-productivity-licensers-claim
  3. Mavridis, I. N. (2014, August 18). Music and the Nucleus Accumbens - PubMed. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25102783/
  4. Benson, T. (2018, April 9). You Listen to Music At Work, and It Alters Your Mind. Yes, Seriously. Retrieved from https://futurism.com/affiliate-listening-music-work-alters-mind
  5. Benson, T. (2018, April 9). You Listen to Music At Work, and It Alters Your Mind. Yes, Seriously. Retrieved from https://futurism.com/affiliate-listening-music-work-alters-mind
  6. Gorvett, Z. (2020, March 18). Does music help us work better? It depends - BBC Worklife. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200317-does-music-help-us-work-it-depends
  7. (n.d.). Whistle while you work? A review of the effects of music in the workplace - ScienceDirect. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S105348221830367X
  8. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. (2014, April 12). Music has powerful (and visible) effects on the brain -- ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170412181341.htm
  9. Chu, M. (2017, September 19). Research Shows Listening to Music Increases Productivity (and Some Types of Music Are Super Effective) | Inc.com. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/melissa-chu/research-shows-listening-to-music-increases-produc.html

Related Articles