Productivity: Your Playlist Could Help You Program Better

A new Qualtrics study on how many software engineers listen to music while working reminds us all: there's a body of research that's examined the link between musical selections and working.

Lisa Schmeiser

June 14, 2017

3 Min Read
Productivity: Your Playlist Could Help You Program Better
Getty Images

While I was cleaning out my email inbox this morning, I read a study from engagement-monitoring and company Qualtrics. They recently found that 96% of software engineers listen to music while coding and 78% of computer programmers prefer to listen to music over any other option while they work. And the five artists they listen to the most -- according to the survey -- are Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, the Beatles, Linkin Park, Katy Perry and U2.

The listening-to-music thing isn't surprising. The Taylor Swift thing, maybe a little.

But there's a body of research that's examined the link between musical selections and working. The verdict: Music can be better for your work.

A 2016 study from MindLab International -- a very small study, with only 26 participants -- found that workers produced more accurate results and finished their tasks more quickly when listening to music. They also specified different types of music for different types of work: classical music for detail-oriented work or numbers-heavy chores; pop music for deadline-driven work or data entry; ambient music for noodling through thorny equations; dance music for accuracy and problem-solving.

But why does music work? As The Atlantic reported -- in a piece that concludes music actually isn't universally great for workers -- music can offset the loss of attention and drop in energy that accompanies repetitive, boring work. So if you're doing something particularly tedious, the music will help you stay energized and focused longer.

However, the article warned:

The more engaging the music is, the worse it is for concentration. Music with lyrics is dreadful for verbal tasks,[neuroscientist Daniel] Levitin said. Music with lots of variation has been found to impair performance—even if the person enjoys it. A just-out conference paper showed that music and speech, compared with white noise, made study subjects more annoyed and hurt their scores on memory and math tests.

The conclusion was that if you must listen to music, make it lyric-free so you're not distracted by the words. An Inc magazine article expands on this, explaining that playing lyric-laden music when you're trying to learn something can diffuse your concentration, why is how a would-be programmer listening to Taylor Swift ends up writing stringsAsFactors = BAD BLOOD instead of stringsAsFactors = FALSE.

However, if your workplace is very noisy, your brain can get completely gridlocked trying to process and place all that noise in context, so music makes sense as a way to block the random noise and free up the cognitive processes so you can concentrate on your work.

The TL;DR seems to be that music is a tool which can boost your workplace productivity so long as the music itself is blocking distractions, not creating them, and keeping your attention low-key engaged so you're not bored during repetitive or tedious tasks.

Ambient music may be the best solution for folks who switch between repetitive tasks and engaging ones. That might explain the rise of advice extolling workers to listen to video game music -- a soundtrack designed specifically to help players engage in a game without getting bored by the work that goes into playing. 

As for me, I'll be keeping the Spotify Productive Morning playlist on repeat. It's just anodyne enough to help me aggregate the data to back up the assertions made in a press release and the follow-up YouTube video.


What are your preferred musical modes? Do you have a playlist for success at work? Share below or tweet me at @lschmeiser.

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