On Music During Work

One input at a time, please! Our mind doesn’t do simultaneity.

In his 1974 autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig tells of his father-son bike ride from Minnesota to Northern California. In one stop along the (high)way, they enter a garage for repairs. The mechanic’s radio plays pop music in accompaniment to his work on Pirsig’s motorbike. Pirsig is not amused, reflecting that the ambient music will likely distract the mechanic at critical moments—a screw left untightened, a grommet left out, a gear left ungreased…. The result of these musings are a loss of trust in the mechanic.

The looming theme of the book is the question “What is Quality? The answer includes the requirement that one must focus undividedly on one’s task at hand in order to meet the highest standards—that distractions inevitably subtract from quality. Music is not the only distractor. Conversations, machinery, traffic, television chatter—they all vie for our attention.

Earbuds 5-365 by Tim, CC BY 2.0
5/365, by Tim. CC BY 2.0

Fast forward to today. We now use “mindfulness” the same way Pirsig used Quality with a big q. And radio speakers have morphed into earbuds. With Pirsig’s distracted mechanic in mind, stroll through your work area and look for earbuds. Assuming that having them in one’s ears means that one is listening to a playlist or its equivalent, imagine the distractions going on and the ensuing potential for error. I recently reviewed a document that had been “poofread” by an earbud-wearing associate. It was peppered with errors—mostly errors of omission, such as missing misspellings, skipping whole pages, and other evidence of incomplete attention, or distracted focus. The mind just can’t focus on two things at once—one must be neglected. Of course, some errors result not from incomplete attention but rather from incomplete knowledge.

What does the research say about listening to music while working? Across studies around the globe, two findings emerge. First, the most important consideration is mood. Negative moods tend to improve when listening to music, and, the better the mood, the more productive/creative/effective the worker. Second, in every study, silence beats music as an accompaniment to work. Listening to music relaxes muscles, creates a private space (aurally, at least), reduces blood pressure and heart rate to some degree, and can alleviate anxiety. Yet, across all studies, listening to music while working lowers concentration, comprehension, knowledge acquisition, and future recall. But look at these other factors:

The nature of the music:

  • Extremely high or low pitches (e.g., those emitted by synthesizers) are the most distracting—they’ll keep you awake, that’s true! But, they won’t let you concentrate. They may be good on night shift for simple, repetitive tasks.
  • Music with words is the most counter-productive, especially when accompanying verbal tasks: Two tasks using the same neural processing channel (in this case, verbal) interfere with one another—you can’t be true to two! Other examples of competing sensory channels: listening to news and proofreading (both verbal), watching football while repairing machinery (both visual and kinesthetic), and working with numbers and listening to complex, highly rhythmic music (both are quantitative—the music comprising ratios and other numerical patterns).
  • More familiar music (i.e., you’ve listened to it forever) is less distracting—you know what to expect. The unexpected rhythms, harmonies, timbres, melodies, and words of less familiar music is distracting.
  • Music in a major key (the Happy Birthday tune) is less distracting than music in a minor key (Chopin’s Funeral March).
  • Music that you personally select is less distracting than music selected for you by others.

The nature of the task:

  • Simpler, highly structured, and repetitive tasks are inherently boring—but not for everyone, as some thrive on and are soothed by such tasks. For those who find such tasks bummers, listening to music can improve mood and thereby increase productivity.
  • Verbal tasks (proofreading, writing, reading, editing, interviewing, speaking) should never be accompanied by verbal music, whether Bach or Bacharach, Mozart or Madonna.
  • Performance of low mental engagement tasks, such as stuffing envelopes or riding a stationary bike, improves when listening to any kind of music.

The nature of the work environment:

  • Office etiquette—some co-workers are offended by others’ music listening habits, whether earbuds or boom boxes. While earbuds provide privacy in, for example, open space office areas, some less secure individuals can interpret a neighbor’s earbuds as rejecting, judgmental, or standoffish.
  • Some work areas are like Grand Central Station, whereby using a headset helps concentration. However, the headset doesn’t need to play music. Sony and Bose make noise-cancelling headphones, and you can put White Noise Free on your iPhone or iPad to select sounds of nature (thunderstorms, ocean waves, gentle rain, desert winds, and the like) to mask environmental distractions.
  • A major source of interruptions and distractions is other people who pop into your space thoughtlessly, when their needs could be equally well met by sending text or other less intrusive messages. When I taught at a large university and spent much of my day in an office farm, students, colleagues, and staff were constantly interrupting me. I checked out a tape recorder with headphones (this was 40 years ago!) from the media center and sat at my desk with the headphones on, but with nothing playing—just silence. Problem solved! No more interruptions.

My recommendations:

  • First, no music/noise is best for productivity, creativity, and quality. If earbuds or headsets are necessary to create silence, then go for it. Silence is best.
  • Second, positive mood is mandatory. If music is necessary to improve mood, then so be it. But if errors persist, find other ways to boost mood—incentives, more interesting work, better working conditions, and so forth.
  • Prohibit any kind of music in accompaniment to more complex, unfamiliar tasks, such as writing a macro in Excel to execute a series of multiple variable calculations.
  • Prohibit music with words in accompaniment to engaging, verbal tasks, such as proofreading, editing, or writing.
  • When music is permitted, prefer music in major keys with neither words nor extremes in pitch or volume.

 My personal rule:

  • Silence when mentally engaged (whether working or conversing)
  • Music when relaxing and I can enjoy the music without being concerned about other simultaneous tasks. My exception: For mindless tasks where errors don’t matter, such as folding clothes

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