What’s the Best Music to Listen to While Working? – The Atlantic – The Atlantic

To find out, I retreated to my safe space, Google Scholar.

It contained bad news for anyone, like me, who believes background music is some sort of special hay that makes the writing horse trot. It turns out the best thing to listen to, for most office workers, is nothing.

An early study called “Music—an aid to productivity,” appropriately found that music could be just that. But the study subjects in that experiment were doing rote factory work, examining metal parts on conveyor belts. The boost in productivity the researchers noticed happened because the music simply made the task less boring and kept the workers alert. This also helps explain later studies finding that music helped surgeons perform better. “Most of what a brain surgeon spends their time doing is drilling through the skull bone,” said Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music. “In that case, it’s a situation like being a long-distance truck driver. If nothing goes wrong, the task itself is somewhat boring and repetitive, so you need something that will keep you psychologically aroused.” (Of course, at some point the surgeon will have to start doing stuff to the brain itself, at which point you’d hope they would hit pause.)

When silence and music were put head to head in more cognitively complex tests, people did better in silence. In a study from the 1980s, researchers gave subjects the option to listen to either upbeat or soft music of their preferred genre, or nothing, while counting backward. The people who listened to their favorite, upbeat tunes did worst of all, and those who heard silence did best.

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