Why music can be a good work companion

Writing this post I am sitting in a coffee shop at the airport, immersed in a cacophony of sounds; bossa nova music from the speakers and the almost rhythmic repetitive voice of the waitress saying hello and asking the customers what they would like. Some people are having conversations and the guy next to my table is playing on his iPhone creating the characteristic descant and bouncy gaming sound. On the other table a woman is watching a Chinese movie on her iPad with the volume out loud. There is the regular sound of coffee beans being grinded, the click clacking of the coffee dispenser and the loud noise from the espresso machine steaming milk. Wooden chairs are being moved back and forth as people come and go and as the waitress cleans the tables. Someone coughs, and someone else slurps the last sip of ice coffee through a straw.

It is very easy to get distracted by all the sounds.

Not a surprise if you ask sound consultant Julian Treasure who says, in his TED talk, that we are “one third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms”. He gives a basic rule of thumb: move away from unpleasant sounds and towards pleasant sounds. However, sometimes we can’t change the environment we have to work in. So his advice is to carry headphones, and whenever we have to work in spaces with lots of noise; like open plan offices or a noisy coffee shop like the one I’m sitting in, we should plug in the headphones and play soothing sounds such as birdsongs or ocean waves.

I like to listen to music while I work.

Reading on the topic I’ve found that there are different views on music and productivity and basically the effect of using music to increase productivity is still inconclusive. However my experience is that music can energize me; I like to start the day of with happy, upbeat music that helps spark my mood, and it’s a great companion to making to-do lists. I can’t listen to that kind of music for too long, because it takes up too much of my attention span. Instead of supporting the work I’m doing it will become a distraction. Listening to music is basically some form of multitasking, since the brain is aware of the music and is working on the task. For some tasks I prefer silence; if I have to come up with new solutions, when I brainstorming or during heavier tasks that require a larger amount of brain capacity.

Most times smooth and soothing music provide me with a nice backdrop of calm while writing or researching – the rhythm of the music helps me work in a steady and productive pace.

MusicTo pin it out, I find that music

  • is useful to drown out distracting background noises
  • has a positive effect on my mood
  • can help me get into a state of flow
  • is better when simple, not too complex or loud in its expression
  • without lyrics is better, when I have to write or do other word related tasks
  • has to be turned off once and a while

To make sure music doesn’t become a burden, you have to choose the right kind of music for the different modes of work.

These are my top 5 albums to listen to while working:

  • Sigur Ros “Takk”
  • Andrei Krylov “Sky Lake. Classical Guitar. Zen. Mediation Music”
  • Steve Reich “Music for 18 Musicians”
  • The Album Leaf “A Chorus of Storytellers”
  • Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”

What are yours?