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The (home) office is alive with the sound of music: Music and productivity at work.

The most fascinating thing about music is arguably its transformative quality. Music enhances whatever it's a part of. 

The right music can turn the most boring dinner party into the greatest house party on the block.

The right music can take a pretty poorly acted scene in a movie and make it an emotional rollercoaster that lasts a lifetime in the memory. 

The right music can, according to some behavioural research, help us improve our memory.

But the question we want to address is one of those that many a manager has pondered down the years; does music improve productivity? If so, how can music and work fit together in our daily lives?

What is the most popular music to listen to whilst working?

One of the big selling points of remote work is the amount of control it gives employees over their environment. So, it's not surprising that remote workers have shed some light on this issue. While the music that works best for an is likely to be influenced by personal taste to some extent, a study of 2000 remote employees by Sodexo Engage found that pop music was rated as the most popular genre for working productively, followed by rock and dance music. Pop music won out regardless of whether employees were reading, writing, or performing admin work.

But despite pop being the most popular overall, Queen earned the distinction of being the most popular individual band/artist in the study. However, many of the other most popular artists for working productively were pop artists such as Ed Sheeren, Pink, and Adele. But this is all self-reported, and as we said, based on personal taste. So, the question still remains: Does music improve productivity at work?

Does music improve productivity in the workplace?

At the very least, the enjoyment people get from music can make it an effective means of improving workplace morale. But although the practice of working to some tunes is very common, the question still remains of how effective it actually is. Does music improve productivity at work, or does it just feel that way because we enjoy it?

Another survey of 2000 workers, this time conducted by Dr Becky Spelman in collaboration with Scala Radio, found that around half listened to music at their desks, and that some managers allowing the practice, while others actively discouraged it. As a result of this, Dr Spelman performed an experiment using several office workers, having them transcribe music lyrics. The control group worked in silence, while the test group worked to classical music. This was found to increase productivity by 15%.

This seems to support prior research by Dr Teresa Lesiuk, which found that positivity and work quality were at their lowest when there was no music, and that the amount of time spent on tasks was at its longest when the music was taken away.

What music is best for productivity?

So, does music improve productivity? Apparently so. But, as it turns out, not all music helps. So, what music is actually effective?

Well, it's a bit more complicated than picking out some specific genre or artist as a magic bullet to help employees get into a good flow. For starters, it depends on the sort of work you're doing. If you're doing a lot of simple and repetitive work, like cleaning up, or filling in columns on a spreadsheet, then you just need something to keep you upbeat, and help time go by more quickly.

But, if your job requires creativity or complex problem solving, then music with lyrics or overly complicated arrangements can be more distracting than helpful. Similarly, it's often better to work to music that you're familiar with. This is because familiar songs can more successfully become background noise, whereas your brain wants to try and pay attention to new songs, which unintentionally forces you to multitask.

Some types of (mostly non-lyrical) music that research suggests are good for productivity include:

  • Classical music: Sometimes, you've just got to go Bach to the classics. Classical music is one of the most commonly recommended genres for working productively. While this is partly due to the lack of lyrics, a lot of people find classical music to have a calming effect, great for reducing workplace stress.

  • Ambient music: If classical music isn't your thing, but you still want something wordless and relaxing, then ambient music is a great alternative. Artists like Brian Eno, or Keith Kenniff (also known as Helios) have some great songs for creating a soothing atmosphere. And even when ambient music has lyrics, they're often subtly or sparingly implemented, to the point where they're basically just part of the arrangement.

  • Film and TV scores: From Jaws to Game of Thrones, musical scores have helped to create some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history. The best part about listening to film and television soundtracks is that they cover an almost limitless variety in terms of mood and pace. You can start out with something mellow and relaxing to get everyone settled in at the start of the day, and switch to something more upbeat and energetic to pick people up in the afternoon.

  • Video game soundtracks: This might sound like an odd recommendation, especially if video games aren't your thing. But you'd be surprised at how effective their music can be as background noise for work. Game music actually fits the requirements for good work music pretty well: It's usually has no lyrics, and is designed to set the mood effectively. And good game music does its job without overshadowing the rest of the sound design, so you can count on it not to be too distracting.

  • Old favourites: Of course, not everything has to be non-lyrical ambience. We all have those albums we're guilty of listening to on repeat until it becomes white noise, lyrics and all. The music you're most familiar with can be a great choice to have on while you work. You've heard it all before, so there's nothing to be surprised (and therefore distracted) by.

Should employees wear headphones?

You might be wondering whether you should have a communal radio in your office, or let staff wear headphones instead. The truth is that each approach has its positives and negatives:

  • Headphones: The main advantage of headphones is that it allows each employee to be in control of what they listen to. This means nobody ends up in the difficult position of working to music that they hate. However, in a lot of workplaces, headphones are unfeasible, such as in a customer service environment, or any role that requires a lot of face-to-face interaction.

  • Radio: Having a radio means your employees will have to mutually agree on what music to listen to. While this can cause arguments, it's also a great way for colleagues to socially bond with each other through a shared love of (or disdain towards) certain bands or artists. However, it also means that some people might be stuck listening to music that negatively affects their ability to engage.

Are there licensing issues with listening to music at work?

So, does music improve productivity at work, or not? Well, definitely not if you go to prison for it! Believe it or not, there are actually licensing issues around listening to music at work. But playing music in any public area or event (which, generally speaking, includes the workplace) is defined under UK law as public performance.

While it can't exactly stop you listening to music through your headphones, the law does apply to the music played openly for any employee to listen to. This doesn't just apply to customer-facing businesses like pubs and supermarkets, either. To cover all your bases and figure out what sort of licensing you'll need for your business, you'll have to contact both the PPL and PRS. These are separate organisations, and you'll need to contact both. PPL represents performers and record companies, while PPL represents authors, songwriters, composers and publishers.

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