Since I was gifted a new pair of headphones this past holiday season, I’ve developed a habit of listening to music while I work.
I’ve been absolutely amazed by how much more productive and creative I am with Pandora’s Mozart or “classical guitar” station playing quietly in the background.
“Not to rain on your musical parade,” he told me, but those listening sessions are likely making me less productive.
Cue the record scratch.
“You’re having so much more fun,” said Levitin (who’s also a musician), “that you feel more productive.”
He cited a growing body of research suggesting that, in almost every case, your performance on intellectual tasks (think reading or writing) suffers considerably when you listen to music. Consider this 2010 study, which found that people performed worse on a memory task when they listened to music in the background, compared to when they worked in quiet.
A better bet, according to Levitin? Listen to music for 10 to 15 minutes before you start working.
He explained that listening to tunes you enjoy can put you in a better mood and relax you. Your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives you a “warm feeling of pleasure.” You may also get a hit of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which elevates your mood and can make it easier to focus.
Unfortunately, Levitin said, listening to music also takes up some of your attentional capacity, meaning that if you listened to it while working, you’d have fewer resources left to direct toward the task at hand.
The exception is when you’re performing tasks that are repetitive or monotonous, such as when you’re working on an assembly line or driving for long periods of time.
In those cases, Levitin said, it’s easy to get bored, so music can increase your arousal and help you pay more attention to your work.
Levitin said he applies the scientific research on music and productivity in his own life. When he’s studying or writing, he works in quiet and takes breaks for either music listening, exercise, or simply being in nature, all of which can be restorative.
But when he’s doing a relatively dull task, like his accounting, he often puts on music (he’s also a fan of Pandora’s classical guitar station).
Another reason why I might have mistakenly believed that music was helping my performance? Simply wearing headphones — especially when you work in a busy newsroom like I do — can help you focus.
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