Should I Be Listening to Music While I Work?

The Emporium of Medicinal Wonderments: In an ongoing series, the curious men and women of The Atlantic bombard me with their physiological curiosities.

[C.E. Brock/FOBO]

Max Fisher: What music should I be listening to while I work?

The xx has a new album that's streaming on NPR. It's pretty good. Does it mess you up if there are lyrics?

Not always. Thanks for the recommendation, but I mean is there a type of music that we know makes us work more efficiently or generally better? Or should I even be listening to music? I thought I'd ask because I read about how doctors listen to music in the operating room.

Yeah, they do... but that's a very different kind of work, mentally, from writing. For an experienced surgeon in the OR it's mostly mechanical, rote.

So if you're doing something less familiar, is music distracting and counterproductive? I think about Conor's piece a while back about how working in coffee shops is good because you have just the right amount of distraction.

Yeah, so some studies have shown that music makes people more productive, but others have shown it has no effect or can be counterproductive. We do know that some level of ambient noise can increase creativity. I think that's a big part of the benefit, for people like you whose brains are accustomed to having a lot of things going at once. Are you familiar with "listening spare time"? I think about that a lot -- that as we listen to people speak, our brains have the capacity to process more than just what we're hearing. So you can either fill that space with daydreaming -- which can potentially veer you off into complete distraction -- or with some monotonous task that prevents you from daydreaming but still fills the space, leaving you more focused overall.

So is music the best thing to fill that space?

People were talking for a while about this thing called the "Mozart Effect," where listening to Mozart showed some temporary improvement in spatial reasoning. But that's also contested -- and spatial reasoning, unlike in surgery, isn't much help in writing. It depends how you work, what your environment is like, and what music you've got to choose from.

I hear a lot of people advocating techno, or just generally drum/bass-centric music for work.

Spencer is pretty into having this 13-minute techno song on repeat when he has to get stuff done. But even he admits that it sometimes makes him feel detached from reality. Which I think we've all noticed sometimes when you walk by his desk.

Sometimes his eyes are rolled into the back of his head.


I got really reliant on working to the first act of Beethoven's Fidelio, and now I can't really enjoy it in the same way because it sounds like work to me.

Definitely don't ruin your favorite music by associating it with work. But it is theoretically best to listen to music you enjoy -- dopamine release, creativity, efficiency, etc.

It's like the equivalent of techno for me with work, though -- but a nineteenth-century German opera. In any case, it's interesting how we engineer these little systems and get stuck in them.

Yeah. There's validity to the idea that you should keep mixing up what you listen to, for the same reasons that you work more efficiently in a coffee shop -- the unique surroundings heighten your awareness and vigilance, keeping you more productive. Like how you work better if everyone can see your computer monitor.

Do I?

Most do. But I think the crux of the coffee shop argument -- and the music-specific one -- is the ambient levels of noise. Ideally we want some, but not too much, and not the distracting kind. On a typical day around here, the ambient noise is perfect. But on Monday mornings when it's too quiet, or when Jordan is doing one of his amazing 90-minute phone interviews right next to me about something that I can't not listen to -- like Canada's strategic maple syrup reserve; or, exactly at this moment, he just said to someone on the phone "I have disagreed with you in the past in print, but I really respect what you do," -- music is definitely the more productive way to go for most of us.

What about music just generally making people smarter? Like Baby Mozart?

I don't want to say there's nothing to it, but still, most brilliant people today didn't have Mozart in utero or crib. I certainly wouldn't imply that parents who didn't expose their babies to incessant classical music deprived them of reaching their full intellectual capacity. What we do know, though, is that learning to play a musical instrument at a young age has all kinds of benefits. The safest investment is probably one of those little harps for your baby, like the cherubs play in paintings.

I'll get right on that.