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Is it good to listen to music at work?

I am on your side. (EXPLORED! #65, Aug 9, 2011)There’s one thing you notice whenever you come back from camping. The noise.

In the car, the shops, the gym: the beat of a drum, the strum of a guitar, the sound of synth – it can feel like we live world of tunes. Arrive at work and what do we do? Turn the radio on or put the headphones in. A survey published last year showed that UK office workers spend a third of their working week listening to music. Why? We use music as a stress relief; to improve concentration or to trigger inspiration.

Let’s cast a scientific eye and find out when listening to music at work really is good or bad…

Should you listen to music while you work?

I love my music ! It’s been said that listening to Mozart improves exam results. Others claim that music dulls the mind. There have been hundreds of small-scale experiments examining the effects of music on memory, concentration and sport performance. Taken as a whole, they don’t suggest very much: background music has very little effect on our mental faculties. So why do so many of us need to rock out as we work on?

Three German researchers decided to take a closer look at all the evidence. Compiling all background music-related experiments published (and only those on adults) they thoroughly analysed their combined results (a meta-analysis). Of the 189 studies they found, the best 97 were weeded out (the rest were poorly done experiments). In keeping with what they expected: for every investigation that found music was beneficial, an equal number demonstrated a music was bad. However, just as no song is the same, so no experiment is the same and our German friends spotted some common themes:

  • background music interferes with reading tasks
  • memory is impaired when music is playing
  • athletic performance improves with music
  • fast paced music increases the speed that you can perform the task in hand
  • music tends to lift mood and may help with monotonous tasks

Listening to music is good for work! (but only certain jobs)

So what are we to conclude?

Play music on the factory floor? Ban iPods in the library? Broadcast dance music when a deadline is looming? Perhaps.

I think this summary about UK office workers sums up my feelings quite nicely: “Managers and employees can benefit from recognizing the importance of employees being able to select their own music.

Ok, Metallica for me then. And you?


Thanks for reading – feel free to comment below…



Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2010). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261

Haake, A. (2011). Individual music listening in workplace settings: An exploratory survey of offices in the UK Musicae Scientiae, 15 (1), 107-129 DOI: 10.1177/1029864911398065

About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...


7 thoughts on “Is it good to listen to music at work?

  1. Seems I remember reading many years ago about Muzak (the background music in the U.S.) had found that they need to have spaces with no music or the productivity in offices went down and so they had a marketing problem selling the “no music” part of their music service.

    I like something on in the background but many times I turn it down so it is just audible to reduce the distractions when doing some tasks.

    Posted by captnmike | February 6, 2012, 10:38 am
    • Hi CatpnMike!
      Thanks for the comment – it was interesting when I found the results of the research, because I have similar experiences. If I need to concentrate or read something – music (unless very quiet) is distracting. Boring or monotonous tasks seem to be easier with music (probably because it makes me feel better).
      I’m sure if anyone were forced to listen to music they didn’t like, it would just be annoying. Can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of musak…

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | February 6, 2012, 10:45 am
  2. Silence appears not to be valued very much. lets wait and see what extend of damage to our audittory system shall the continued asult by “noise ” do to our sensitive , auditory system after a few generation….is it really so difficult to prefer NOT TO BE EXPOSED to constant noise, whether whie, or whatever. Does our brain require constant stimulation, and no rest ?

    Posted by dance | February 6, 2012, 5:51 pm
  3. I certainly find that music hinders reading comprehension and, as a student, that’s what I spend most my time doing, so I don’t often have music on in the background. Having said that, too much silence is quite numbing, so I occasionally put music on that I find uninteresting and monotonous, as it is less likely to pull my focus.

    Posted by Callum James Hackett | February 6, 2012, 10:23 pm
  4. I think that music would be a benefit while working so that it can alter your work performance. I believe that this relates to Edward B. Titchener’s theory of structuralism to some extent. It would be called introspection by stimulus. The stumuli would be songs that the person had heard in the past. If people can listen to a song that can reconstruct there conscious experiences then there work could be improved. If they listen to a song that brings back good memories and happiness then maybe they could produce better quality work at a faster pace. If they listen to a song that reminds them of bad memories and anger or depression then maybe their work could be of less quality and produced at a slower pace.

    Posted by Kyle Sample | February 7, 2012, 12:56 am
  5. The reasoning behind the drum beat in the bellies of slave ships ? Increased productivity and concentration ? Better effort ?

    Posted by dance | February 9, 2012, 8:01 pm
  6. I like listen songs and work its very helpful to finish the work with out bore .. 🙂

    Posted by SeliC | May 16, 2013, 9:56 am

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