© moodboard/Corbis
© moodboard/Corbis

Working with music: what does science say?

The relationship between listening to music at work and productivity has been subject to many studies, with as many different views. Does it affect your productivity? Or, quite the opposite, does it disrupt our concentration? Scientists say it’s all a question of measure.

"Listening to French radio shows or French songwriters is a problem if I have to write, draw or come up with clever jokes. It all gets entangled in my head and I just can’t focus properly. By contrast, classical music — without words that is — proves very inspiring when I craft images" Said Philippe Geluck, Belgian cartoonist and author, interviewed by Vincent Josse on France Musique's “Matinale culturelle”.

So is music a serendipitous source of inspiration? Many of us work with headphones on, even during the most mundane tasks of everyday life. We use music as a shield from ambient noise, as a little boost or even to relax. But what happens in our brain when we listen to music while working? Should it be prevented or encouraged in the work environment? According to scientists, the answer is more nuanced than that: it is a question of choice and measure, but it also depends on personalities and habits.

Indeed, when we have to read, write or communicate with others, as Philippe Geluck describes, we mobilize the cognitive functions of our brain. In this situation, music could interfere with active circuits, as explains Daniel Levitin, musician and researcher in cognitive psychology, author of This is your brain in music. Even if we get the impression of being productive, we are in fact not able to be fully focused on our main task.

Quite the opposite happens when we are absorbed in repetitive or monotonous tasks, music then becomes stimulating. "Music easily captures our attention: as soon as there is music in the environment, the brain synchronizes very naturally" says Hervé Platel, neuropsychology researcher at Université de Caen. “Music's pathway into the brain is much more complex than speech for example, and mobilizes different areas of our brain. Music stimulates, relaxes, calms pain, but also has the ability to increase the brain plasticity and cause changes in synaptic connections. According to the researcher, listening to music while working would stimulate memory and reduce fatigue.

Choose the music you like

Working in music could therefore stimulate memory, but also reduce stress and anxiety. Researcher Teresa Lesiuk of the University of Windsor analyzed the influence of music on computer engineers' productivity and creativity,, and found that those who listened to music while working were able to finish their task faster and provide better ideas. ‘’When you're stressed, you tend to make decisions too fast. But when you are in a positive state, you are more likely to consider several options." Positive feelings could influence your brain’s cognitive organization, including at the level of creativity. But, as Teresa Lesiuk points out, to be able to pick the music you listen to according to your personal taste is of course very important. 

And we are not all equal, music lovers will indeed prove more receptive to the impact of music at work. But we do share the same physiological response when listening to a familiar piece. On a variant scale, we are overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness: "The music we enjoy stimulates the sensory reward in our brain. This results in the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the feeling of well-being " explains Hervé Platel. "In the workplace, it can reduce stress and anxiety.” And anxiety tends to inhibit cognitive functions. In contrast, a state of well-being will release serotonin that improves moods and facilitates concentration.

Privilege instrumental music 

However, not every type of music is conducive to work. Generally, it is better to choose neutral, preferably instrumental music: "Words are cognitively distracting. Since work requires manipulating our inner reflection through language, our linguistic reflection will obviously be disturbed by the text." explains the researcher. It is also better to avoid music that is too dynamic, which can eventually eat-up energy and decrease concentration: * "It can be used very temporarily to give a boost, but in the long run it is more likely to exhaust you, with negative effects on concentration and mood. We also lose the effect on interest if exposure is prolonged.” * In the end, music can be a great way to get ready for the workday or to reenergize between two tasks. According to Daniel Levitin, just 15 minutes of listening to music has the same effect on our mood as a sporting activity or a walk-in nature, whatever it is, as long as it is part of our favorited playlist.

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