Among the laundry list of complaints levelled against millennials is that they prefer to shut out the world with big, bulky headphones. The imposition of a sound barrier strikes many managers as rude, or simply inappropriate for an office environment.
A recent study from the Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina found that listening to music can help people focus their attention—but only if it’s music they like. In the study, participants were placed in an MRI machine while they listened to tunes (a selection that included Beethoven, Brad Paisley and Usher). When hearing a preferred genre or favourite song, the brain showed greater connectivity in a region called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is where we alternate between inner and outer thought. When it’s active, we’re less focused on the physical world around us. In other words, we’re in the zone.
Another study conducted in 2005 at the University of Windsor found that working to a soundtrack actually increases productivity and work quality when the desired output is of the creative variety.
The Windsor study tracked 56 developers at four Canadian software companies engaged in software design, a field in which creativity is encouraged. For the first week of the study, participants were instructed to listen to music as they normally would. For the second and third weeks, participants could listen to either their own tunes or a library of 65 CDs from various genres provided by the researchers. In week four, participants were ordered not to listen to any music, while in the fifth week the library was reinstated.
Listening to music improved participants’ mood, which in turn made them more creative. It may also have made them work faster. When deprived of music in the fourth week, participants took longer to complete work tasks than they intended to, suggesting that music helped them pace their activities and the workday more generally.
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“Many of the people in that work culture listen to quite a bit of music,” explains the author of the Windsor study, Teresa Lesiuk, now the program director at the Department of Music Education & Music Therapy at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. “So when you removed it from there, there was a negative effect on their mood, and they reported feeling less creative.” One person even refused to participate in the study, because he was working on an important project and would have had to go without his music for a week.
Blocking out the outside world may actually be the point—Lesuik says her participants used “music to create their own personal space, so they could concentrate on their work.” So go ahead, put on your favourite album while you’re brainstorming or groove to the radio while you’re doing payroll. Just make sure you’ve got headphones on—one person’s Kenny G is another’s torture.
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Do you listen to music while you work? What genres or artists are best-suited to getting things done? Let us know using the comments section below.