The rhythmic base of an old-school hip-hop song, the majesty of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries to pump you up, a cheerful tune to brighten the mood a bit at the end of a long day: if you use headphones at work to concentrate and reduce distractions, you will no doubt have a minutely compiled “desk playlist”.

If you recognize yourself in the above description, then you’re part of one of two factions that for years have been taking sides in the pros and cons of music in the office debate. An age-old problem – yet still relevant today – that has never found a cure-all solution.

Listening to music can improve productivity

Listening to music can improve productivity.

This is probably one statement we can all get on board with, but what does a worker’s “happiness” depend on? According to a survey by the staffing firm Robert Half, published on Workforce, one of the many factors to be taken into account is being able to listen to music on the job.

The reason is simple enough: when we engage in this activity, our body releases dopamine, generating a sense of contentment. Listening to music on headphones can also limit the impact of noise pollution, protect from the continuous hum, and reduce the release of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone”.

Beware though, music at work is not for everyone

As always, all that glitters is not gold. While for one worker, the right guitar riff might be just the incentive they need, for another it can be a source of annoyance.

Working and listening to music at the same time means having to multitask. This is a talent we don’t all have, and coming to this realization has to be our first step.

There’s one type of work that it seems both sides can agree on, including even the most ardent anti-music advocates.

Background music helps us be more productive when performing repetitive tasks.

There are numerous studies on the subject. Published in 1972, one study in particular is amongst the most widely quoted and has formed the basis for thousands of research projects around the world, all of which reach its same conclusion.

Negative effects of music in the office

When music comes out of a shared speaker rather than headphones, the risk is always lying in wait: it takes just one “wrong” song to cause irreparable annoyance or distraction. This is what often happens in small offices, when not everyone shares the same taste in music offered by the radio or the co-worker at the next desk.

As already covered on these pages, using headphones can lead to a breakdown in relations between fellow workers. Isolating yourself can be taken almost as an affront, making some people feel like you want to establish a barrier because of some perceived dislike or indifference towards them. If you decide to wear headphones in the office, you have to make sure that this action is not going to upset others, working with them to find the best mutually acceptable solution.

What music should you listen to at work?

Do you feel the need to isolate yourself a little with your music in order to work better? Here are a few tips to help you create the perfect playlist!

  1. Avoid overly structured pieces of music

    A limited range of highs and lows, just a few instruments, a single voice. Music that’s overly complex can make you listen more carefully, distracting you from the job at hand. Apparently, this piece of advice doesn’t apply to classical music!

  2. Be careful with lyrics

    Sometimes, it’s better to listen to music you’re not familiar with, or that has few lyrics, in order to avoid creating associations between what we’re listening to and what we’re doing. This discriminant is particularly important in tasks where language is involved, such as writing emails or a press release.

  3. Task-specific genres

    According to a study conducted by The Telegraph, classical music makes mathematical tasks more accurate, pop speeds up data entry, while electronic music improves focus when proofreading.

  4. Each to their own

    One last, and perhaps most important, tip: don’t listen to music you don’t like, it’s better to switch it off altogether. There’s nothing worse than listening to an awful song for the sake of it.