Numerous studies have confirmed that listening to music can improve productivity, but new research suggests that some genres are more motivating than others.
The most popular music for improving productivity, according to a study by CloudCover Music, is classic rock, followed by alternative and pop. On the other hand, hip-hop, heavy metal, EDM, and country were considered the most distracting.
“It really is up to an individual’s preference,” says Meg Piedmont, a project manager for CloudCover Music, who helped put the study together. “It’s about creating your own workspace, personalized to what will allow you to do the best work you can do.”
Piedmont points to hip-hop to demonstrate how subjective the impact of music can be on the individual listener. While 21.1% labeled the genre “productive,” making it the fifth favorite in the workplace, 37.7% of respondents said it was “distracting,” making it simultaneously the most detested.
One thing most respondents agreed on is that music is preferred over any other background noise in the workplace, with 94% of respondents saying they listen to music at work, compared with 42% that listen to radio, 35% that listen to podcasts, 25% that listen to news, and 15% that listen to audiobooks and sports.
How headphones became a standard work accessory
According to Piedmont, there are a number of converging trends that are making headphones a standard workplace accessory. Open-office layouts might help the real estate budget, but they also result in a lot of noise pollution. In fact, 30% of respondents admitted to using headphones at work primarily to cancel out background noise, while 46% said they used them to avoid conversation with colleagues.
“Listening to music with headphones might help people keep focused and feeling like they have their own space in an open workplace,” says Piedmont. “It’s also really easy to have access to music these days—it’s usually right on your phone or right on your computer for free—and the easy access might also be a reason why we’re seeing more people listening more frequently throughout the day.”
According to the study, 82.2% of respondents are permitted to listen to their personal music in the workplace using headphones. Of those listening to some form of audio in the workplace, roughly 42% listen throughout the entire day, 39.5% listen a couple of times a day, and about 19% listen a couple of times per week.
Nostalgia drives listening habits
Music can help bring colleagues together, according to the study, but it can also push them apart. Roughly 26% of respondents judged their coworkers for their music preference, but 59% of employees and 65% of employers believe music helps them connect with their coworkers.
The difference often comes down to nostalgia and association, according to Teresa Lesiuk, the director of the music therapy program at the University of Miami.
“There’s what we call an ‘associative memory network,’ so if you have memories with a piece of music, that’s going to attach to memory nodes, to emotional nodes in the brain,” she says. “Music that creates associations is very powerful.”
Lesiuk adds that perhaps the most popular genres in the workplace—such as classic rock, alternative, and pop—are actually just the most nostalgic.
“The music from your 20s, when you’re very active and are having an identity formation taking place, that tends to be the most powerful to people,” she says. “It makes sense then that classic rock and alternative and maybe now hip-hop are popular, as the population gets older.”
Silence is still golden
Despite the trend toward more music at work, the best background noise for concentrating for important workplace tasks is silence, according to author and researcher Josh Davis.
“In almost every circumstance where you’re trying to do knowledge work, where you need to be focused, you’re better off with silence,” he says.
In Davis’s book, Two Awesome Hours, he explores ways to maximize the individual’s two most productive hours of the day, explaining that environmental factors like noise can have a significant impact on productivity.
“For the stuff that is really going to move your career forward, the stuff that’s really going to make you successful, for that you really need to be at your best, so I would push for silence for your two awesome hours,” says Davis, who has contributed to Fast Company. “For the rest of the day, put on music that makes you feel most pleasant or productive, that makes it easier to get through the stuff that might be less pleasant but has to get done.”
The right playlist for the right task
When silence isn’t an option, however, both Davis and Lesiuk suggest trying to match the genre with the task at hand.
“There’s certain kinds of creative work where it’s not about focused attention, but being creative in more of an artistic sense,” says Davis. “For that, having some background noise has been shown to free people up from constraints, precisely because they are a little distracted.”
Lesiuk advises workers to consider several factors when choosing a playlist, including internal factors like mood, personality type, and personal preferences, as well as external variables like the nature of the task and the work environment.
“Let’s say it’s a boring task, but you’re highly stressed when you approach it; you have to take care of that mood state first,” she says. “You could match the music to the state that you’re in first so that you can reflect into the music, and then you might want to slowly choose music that will bring that mood state toward being more relaxed.”
Lesiuk’s research has also found that music can be effective in combating drowsiness and a generally negative affect, thus improving workplace performance.
“Whatever the genre you choose, find something that is a bit more up-tempo, something that has a melody and rhythm that moves a lot, because those properties will make you more alert,” she says.