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“Effective performance is preceded by painstaking preparation.” 

These are the words of motivational speaker and self-development author Brian Tracy. This quote applies to our everyday life and is particularly helpful when getting started on a new workday. 

Preparation truly is key to being productive at work, but that’s often easier said than done. What exactly do you need to prepare to perform well and be productive at your job, or whatever it is you need to accomplish?

Of course, the main element to prepare is yourself. You need to commit to get your priorities in order and finish the day’s tasks. 

But we all need a little help every now and then, and so for this article, we’ll be sharing with you a not-so-secret weapon that can boost your productivity: music.

Music affects us in different ways, from cheering us up when we’re in a funk to motivating us to keep running that last mile. We listen to music to set a mood, to relax, and even to just pass the time. 

Music can also be used to put us in the zone for doing a particular activity. This is why we have playlists for studying and doing workouts. There’s also evidence showing how music can help us accomplish work tasks more efficiently.

However, not just any music would do. Just as you would probably choose to listen to uptempo tracks over slow ballads when you’re out running a 5K, there are some types of music that would be better for a certain task over another. 

We’ll take this up later on, but first, does background music for work productivity really work, and how? To answer this question, we need to look at how sound influences how we think and feel.

Playing a Piano-Musician

How Sound Affects Us

Sounds such as traffic noise, music, loud or hushed conversations, dogs barking, and other things we can hear affect people in four ways: physiologically, emotionally, and cognitively. 

Physiologically, sounds can change our breathing rhythm, heart rate, brainwaves, even our endocrine functions, which control the production and secretion of hormones. For example, studies have found that listening to relaxing music can reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone related to stress.

Emotionally, sounds can affect how we feel and in turn, how we behave. Sounds can be loud or soft, annoying or interesting, distracting or soothing, infuriating or pleasant. 

Loud sirens, for instance, can make us feel anxious and on edge. We become more alert, more concerned about what’s happening around us. But when you’re near the sea and hear the waves lapping on the beach, or when you’re listening to some classical music, you tend to feel more relaxed and calm.

Cognitively, sounds affect brain activity and how we think. In one study, researchers learned that prolonged exposure to loud noise alters how the brain processes speech. In another study, scientists learned that brain activity can be changed during cognitive tasks by using sounds in the background. 

Research has also shown that listening to music, such as the work of classical composer Antonio VIvaldi, can improve memory and mental alertness – which you need to do your work efficiently.

This brings us to our main topic: using music to improve our cognitive functioning so we can perform better at work and ultimately become more productive.

How Music Influences How We Work?

Music engages several different areas of the brain. Which areas of the brain are activated when listening to music varies from person to person, depending on your own personal experiences with music and whether you’ve had musical training. 

This means that your ability to focus on certain tasks or feel a specific emotion when listening to music can be different from that of your coworker. Music tracks that can put your brain into work mode can be annoying for someone else, and vice versa – which is why it’s ideal to put your headphones or earbuds on at work rather than have your sounds blasting from a speaker. 

Of course, you need to make sure you’re still able to hear when someone calls you.

Research suggests that listening to certain types of music can improve creativity, motivation, productivity, and positive feelings in terms of doing work-related tasks. 

Studies have found that ambient or industrial music could be the best genre for productivity. Nature sounds are also ideal, based on a 2015 study that noted how employee productivity and moods improved when sounds from nature (such as a flowing stream or rainfall) were played.

Toot Your Own Horn At Work

Other studies have noted how music with lyrics can be distracting for most people who need to learn or analyze new information or focus intensely on a particular task. On the other hand, these kinds of music can be helpful for those who do repetitive tasks. 

When you’re listening to tracks you like (such as your favorite pop or classic rock songs), you may benefit emotionally because it puts you in a good mood. You develop positive feelings that motivate you to do a repetitive task that would otherwise be boring and make you slow down or lose focus.

Then again, because one’s musical experiences and music interests may be different from someone else’s, you may need to do some experimenting to see what works for you. 

Finding the right kind of music that can help you achieve a better, more effective performance at work can be challenging, but think of it as being part of the “painstaking preparation” motivational speaker Brian Tracy was talking about.

To help you prepare your work playlists (because you’ll need different kinds of music for different tasks), here are some background music ideas to get you started.

Top 6 Background Music Ideas for Different Tasks

1. Classical Music

Listening to classical music can enhance your cognitive functioning, particularly your ability to solve spatial puzzles. Classical music pieces don’t have lyrics that can distract you, plus they’re known to reduce stress and make you feel more calm and relaxed. If you have a task that requires you to learn and retain new information, you can check out classical music playlists on your preferred music streaming platform.

If for some reason you can’t really put your headphones on during your work shift, listen to calming music during your breaks instead. This would be a big help especially if you’re feeling particularly stressed, fatigued, or wrung out.

Here’s where you can start: Vivaldi. We’ve mentioned how this composer’s music can make you more mentally alert, and there’s research backing this up. A study published in 2013 states that uplifting concertos from the Italian Baroque music composer’s “The Four Seasons” can enhance attention and memory

The study required participants to perform a task that required mental concentration. When they were shown a green square on a computer monitor, they had to press the spacebar on a keyboard, and ignore other colored squares and circles that appeared. The participants’ brain activity was measured as they carried out the task, both in silence and while listening to each of the four “Four Seasons” concertos.

The researchers found that participants were able to respond correctly at a shorter period of time when they were listening to the first movement, the uplifting Spring concerto. So, when you’re faced with a particularly demanding task that needs you to focus, go ahead and give Vivaldi’s Spring concerto a listen.

2. Cinematic Music

Another background music to listen to when you’re looking to boost your productivity is cinematic music. Intense film scores, epic soundtracks, video game music – these kinds of music can make you feel inspired and empowered like you’re sent on a grand journey or a challenging mission with you as the sole hero. 

Putting on some uplifting background music can make you feel happy, which definitely makes doing any task better and makes you more productive. It also brightens the mood, so if you’re feeling a bit meh at the start of your workday, seek out an epic movie or video game soundtracks to get you going.

Some of our favorite film composers include Hans Zimmer, Ludovico Einaudi, Ennio Morricone, and John Williams. For video game music, check out the work of Austin Wintory, Jessica Curry, Koji Kondo, and Jeremy Soule.

3. Nature Music

Sounds of nature can boost your mood and improve your focus. However, since nature encompasses a lot of sounds, from lapping waves and howling winds to chirping birds and babbling brooks, it can be a lot to take in. Studies suggest that soothing sounds work best, such as soft or moderate rainfall and flowing water. 

Soothing nature soundscapes can also have a restorative effect on your cognitive functioning, so feel free to immerse yourself in the sounds of nature whenever you need a break from office chatter.

Jarring or alarming noises (such as howling wolves, fierce thunderstorms, and loud bird calls) can be distracting and even cause anxiety, so best to steer clear of those if you want to stay productive.  

4. Ambient Music

Ambient music, electronic music, downtempo music, post-rock music, chillout music – whatever you want to describe it, it’s the kind of music that seems to be “just there” without being obtrusive, and that’s the kind of music you need to to help you focus. 

Ambient music composer Brian Eno once said that ambient music should be able to accommodate several levels of listening attention – but without enforcing a particular one. “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” 

Ambient music songs, particularly tracks that are slow and soothing, can also spark your creative energy. Listening to slow music can enhance innovation and creativity, so when you need to come up with something brilliant, put some ambient sounds on, open your mind, and get those creative juices flowing.

Ambient music tracks tend to have repetitive melodies that don’t distract or make you feel overly excited, so they’re a great choice for work tasks that require concentration. Check out the soundscapes created by Akiko Kiyama, The Echelon Effect, Wynton Marsalis, and Brian Eno to get you started.

5. Your Favorite Music

And as we’ve mentioned, listening to your top tracks can also benefit you, especially when you’re tasked to do things you’re not really excited about but have to accomplish. When you put on music you enjoy, it’s bound to improve your mood and make you productive. Whatever music that makes you say, “This is my jam!” is bound to help you finish even the most mundane of tasks.

If your feel-good, go-to music involves lyrics, go ahead and give it a listen if it makes you look forward to the task at hand, or you know it will be good for your sense of well-being at work. 

This can also be the kind of music you can listen to absentmindedly, as it’s familiar and not likely to be distracting. If singing along helps, you can do that too, provided of course that you don’t lose focus on what you’re doing or distract anyone else.

6. Music You Don’t Really Have Strong Feelings For

This is a whole new category that includes songs that you find to be just ‘okay.’ They’re the kind of songs you may usually hear but don’t particularly like or dislike – they’re just there filling up the silence, or masking other office sounds. These songs can also be good for your background music at work because your brain can simply choose to ignore them, allowing you to focus on your task.

When ‘No Music’ is Best

If you’re faced with tasks that demand your full, intense, undivided attention and concentration, it may be wise to choose silence. There may be times background music, no matter how soft, uplifting, or calming, can be a distraction instead of a tool for productivity. 

Try the different kinds of music in this list, and if absolutely nothing works, just leave your headphones or earbuds on without playing anything. It can still give you the sense of being in your own quiet space, which can help you concentrate and get things done.

So, are you ready to prepare for your most productive workdays ever? Start exploring these background music recommendations and give them a try. Create different playlists for different tasks and add or remove tracks as you see fit. Remember, this is your work jam, your happy working songs, and you have the freedom to choose what works best for you. Have fun!

Written By
Mark Cutler is a freelance writer who writes prolifically about playing musical instruments and other music related themes. He has written extensively on multiple sites about playing instruments and how you can use music in your everyday life to be more productive and proactive. Mark has a wife and two kids who he loves to spend time with. He also vacations regularly in Los Cabos - time permitting.

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