Listen up: here’s what music to listen to at work

Music can greatly boost productivity and focus. Take the time to consider what music to listen to at work, block out the distractions of a busy office and tune yourself in to a state of work flow.

Here's what music to listen to at work. Picture shows close-up image of a vinyl record being played on a turntable.

Enya? ABBA? Alt-J? Trying to find a consensus on what music to listen to at work is like trying to get people to agree on which David Bowie album is the best (clearly Ziggy Stardust).

First off, let’s just clarify: music can aid your productivity. But, what kind of music will work for you depends on a whole range of factors, from personal preference to job role.

There’s no recommendation to be made that will work for everyone, so instead let’s lay down some rules for the office environment.

While offices are designed to be places of concentration and productivity, more often than not, they aren’t. Amidst the din of office clatter and chatter, music can be a calming and a focusing presence. So listen up and take note.

What to avoid

Follow the wrong advice and you’ll find that music makes your day harder, not easier. Here’s what to avoid:

  • Lyrics. Avoid them completely when writing or reading. Typing an email to the backdrop of Bohemian Rhapsody may be fun, but it’s not easy going (save that for your time off). That’s because we use the same areas of the brain for both interpreting audible words and for writing or reading the written word. Some people suggest that foreign lyrics are okay, but for me I can’t help but pay attention to the words of a song – even if I don’t understand them.
  • Heavy beats. High-pitched tones. Cymbals. Anything that loudly grasps your attention is a no-no. Leave the high-energy stuff for high-physical-energy tasks: when you’re trying to focus on brain-intensive work, your music needs to be as smooth as possible.
  • Singles. The last thing you want to be doing when you’re trying to concentrate is scrolling through your music library to pick the next song. Pick albums instead. Or, if you’re really prepared, make a playlist. (Spotify has some great pre-made focus playlists.)

What’s left?

Of course, those rules eliminate about 90 percent of popular music, so what’s left?

Consistently people recommend both the classical and ambient genres. Those are the best picks, but variation within those genres makes things trickier. The high drama of Beethoven or the haunting soundscapes of Tim Hecker would be a ludicrous backdrop to filling in a form.

You want to find that perfect combination of smoothness and melody. Here are some of my top picks from years of trying to find the most effective albums for my own productivity:

  • Nils Frahm – Solo. Blending piano with subtle electronic distortions, Nils Frahm is a master of crafting flowing melodies that compliment rather than cover-up background noise.
  • Helios – Moiety. Helios provides a simplistic and gentle sound that always has an inspiring warmth to it.
  • Loscil – Sea Island. With slow builds and stretching synths, Loscil is an outstanding soundtrack to encourage long-term focus.

The right music can make an instrumental difference (pun very much intended) to your concentration at work. Choose the soundtrack to your workday carefully, and you’ll help yourself reach that elusive state of concentration called ‘flow’.

And if you’re at a complete loss, just listen to the Windows start-up theme … slowed down by 4,000 percent.

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