Should You Whistle While You Work?
(Depends on what you do for a living…)
Music is good for the soul. So, naturally, it must follow that listening to music while you work must also be good for you. After all, there’s that age-old theory that classical music helps you learn, and that listening to classical music while still in the womb makes for smarter babies.
Regrettably, the classical music theory has been refuted, and new studies show that while music may, at times, help productivity, at other times it can actually be harmful to your output.
The Positive Side
For tasks that require teamwork, music can be an incredible boon (provided you and your team can all agree on what to play). This was recently illustrated in apsychological study wherein children were grouped together to complete a task; one group sang while they worked, the other remained silent. The children who sang together proved to be more cooperative and worked together to accomplish their task, while the silent group did not.
Adults also saw improvements to productivity when they listened to music while they worked, but only in certain circumstances. A 2005 study showed that workers who listened to music during their tasks showed higher productivity than those who didn’t, but it’s not quite so simple as saying music = increased productivity.
The Negative Side
An article published in Time Magazine suggested that while a surgeon may operate at an increased capacity with their favorite tunes playing, that same music can make life more difficult for the other doctors in the operating arena. The author, Annie Murphy Paul, writes:
“When you are doing repetitive or routine tasks (e.g., folding laundry or filing papers), listening to music can make it less boring. But when you need to perform cognitively demanding tasks, music can actually be distracting.”
This coincides with other studies, which show that listening to music while trying to learn something new can actually hinder learning and make it harder to process and retain the information.
So what does this all inevitably mean? Well, like so many other things, it all comes down to what you’re doing and how good you are at it. When learning something new, or performing a particularly difficult task that requires your full concentration, kill the music. Even if it’s purely instrumental, music makes it more difficult to process unfamiliar information (this is why people instinctively turn off the stereo in the car when they’re searching for an address).
However, if you find yourself an old hand at something, or if the task is repetitive and requires minimal cognitive prowess, you’ll find yourself much happier and more productive to slip on some headphones and let the music take you where you want to go.