Want to be more productive? Here’s what you should listen to

Music has been proved to improve brain function and ease stress, but are there genres that can enhance your output during the working day?

If you’re someone who can’t work without a good tune on in the background, you’re in good company. According to a 2019 study, just over half of British people listen to music while they work, and two in five say it helps them to get more done.

But choosing the right playlist is a bit of a science, and some kinds of music can do more harm than good for your productivity and concentration. (We’d mostly recommend you give the thrash metal a pass, for now.)

Here’s the science behind the perfect working playlist – and three to try out today.

Concentrate with classical
In 1994, researchers at the University of California conducted an experiment that changed the way people think about music – and not entirely for the better. Called the ‘Mozart effect’ in the world’s press, the study’s findings were soon misrepresented as proving that classical music makes a listener smarter, and that idea stuck. So much so, that special headphones were developed so babies could listen from the womb, with a Georgia governor even allocating a huge chunk of his budget to playing Mozart to the state’s newborns.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple – you won’t gain any IQ points for choosing the right radio station. But what we can learn from the Mozart study is that music gets you in the zone when you need to perform. Volunteers were played ten minutes of either silence, self-hypnosis tapes or Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, and then carried out tasks of spatial reasoning. The Mozart group consistently fared better.

The playlist: Classic FM Revision
What also made the Mozart sonata so effective in 1994 was that it hit the sweet spot between simplicity – one instrument type, major key, repeating patterns – and complexity – dextrous melodies and complex interweaving harmonies. Pieces from Debussy, Bach and Vaughan Williams have been handpicked by the experts at Classic FM as perfect to work to.

Rinse and repeat
It goes without saying that music with lyrics can be distracting, but not all instrumental music will get you doing your best work. Jazz, for example, with all its freeform meanderings and unpredictable patterns, has been noted to distract listeners.

What you need is repetition, repetition, repetition. A constant beat and recurring patterns will get those synapses firing on all cylinders. Background music has the ability to drown out erratic spikes in ambient sound, preventing you from getting distracted and losing your train of thought. Consistent, repetitive music will cut through the noise and help you focus.

The playlist: Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio
The runaway success of these chilled-out downtempo beats speaks for itself: more than 4.2 million likes on Spotify, and 6.5 million subscribers to the YouTube channel. It ticks a lot of boxes: repetitive, pleasant and just stimulating enough to keep you focused. The original YouTube live stream is still going strong 24/7, so tune in and bliss out.

Ambient jams
Sometimes the best working playlists don’t have to contain music at all. Studies have shown that the brain can only focus on one task for so long before it begins to wander to whatever else the senses are picking up. When you hear an external noise, you can’t help but process it, and divert your attention.

When the background noise is consistent and expected, however, distractions fade away, so filling your headphones with ambient noise could work wonders. Noisli is a website that provides a range of background sounds – think rain or birdsong – to help you focus. You can even use volume sliders to mix your perfect levels of each sound. If you work best zoning out against the low chatter of a lively café, Coffivity provides ambient recordings of real café buzz – from Morning Murmur to Texas Teahouse. You will have to make your own coffee, though.

The playlist: White Noise
This popular Spotify playlist (bet you didn’t know there were white noise artists, did you?) is for the “drowners-out” among us who want things, simple, calm and orderly. Give it a whirl and see how long it is before you forget it’s even there…

Looking for a more productive workplace? Find out if there’s a Spaces near you

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