Put your records on from 9 to 5

Illustration of a head showing music productivity

Original illustration by Haylam Tang

There are 30 song titles in this post; how many can you find?

Disclaimer: this article was written with the aid of a soundtrack because I’m a believer in music’s positive influence on concentration, creativity and productivity. And, apparently, I’m not the only one…

The word ‘music’ derives from the Greek word for the muses – goddesses who inspired ordinary people to feats of creation and understanding. Music is supposedly a product of their divinity, but when we listen to the music that they have inspired, can it then become a muse itself? Or is it just a distraction that results in our attention being torn away from the task at hand?

You don’t need me to tell you the benefits that music can have, but I’m going to anyway. Nobody significant once said “what you can’t learn from the scientist, you can learn from the musician”, but there’s a lot science can teach us about music. Time after time, studies have shown that listening to the music you like increases levels of happiness as the brain releases dopamine. Similarly, your favourite music reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol (and since stress has been found to be the basic cause of 60% of illnesses, it might be worth sticking on the tunes if you’re feeling under pressure). Classical music has also been proven to reduce depressive symptoms and insomnia.

But what about listening to music while attempting cognitive tasks? What effect do the rhythm, melody and lyrics have on your ability to focus, create and produce? Well, music has been found to increase concentration levels, depending on how you feel about the music; perhaps unsurprisingly, music that you like helps you focus, while music you don’t can leave you waving the white flag.

The theory behind this is that the brain has a conscious system and an unconscious system. The conscious is under your control and is how you direct your attention, but the unconscious never shuts down and you can’t stop it from staying alert to any peripheral stimuli; that’s why it sometimes only takes the careless whisper of a colleague thinking out loud to steal your focus.

When you dedicate your concentration to a task that isn’t particularly engaging, it only increases your unconscious system’s alertness. So, by listening to your favourite music, you are effectively drowning out other distractions – in the same way you might distract a toddler with a bunch of keys to shut them up. So, if you really need to focus, ask yourself: what’s your song?

Similarly, researchers claim that listening to happy music boosts creativity. One study involved participants listening to different types of classical music that evoked contrasting emotions while performing cognitive tasks. The best results for divergent thinking (thinking outside the box) were in the group that listened to uplifting compositions. The reasons behind this are not yet clear and, although we can speculate on them (maybe because happy music makes us less sad, and therefore less introspective, and therefore more creatively absorbent), it would be naïve to make any assumptions. The key thing to remember is that if you want to be creative, it’s best to be feeling good.

When it comes to productivity, studies again suggest that listening to music can have a positive impact, but it is partially dependent on matching the type of task with the appropriate type of music. For instance, if the work is relatively unengaging, then you should stick to the songs you like; it is likely to improve your mood and you can lose yourself in it while performing the task almost automatically. However, if you must engage your mind more, then lyrics, in particular, can have a detrimental effect as your unconscious system is especially receptive to human speech and the words can become a distraction. Ironic – what can sometimes be used to aid focus can also steal attention.

For some, music is the greatest love of all and musicians are heroes. Personally, I would be walking around like a zombie if not for Spotify. When I’m listening to a song I like, I feel better, stronger and more energised. So, the discovery that it can help me with my work has left me dancing on the ceiling. However, to avoid controversy, I’ll make sure to respect my colleagues and always use headphones rather than a speaker.

Posted on 28th January 2019 in Creativity&Culture
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