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The best music to listen to while you work or study

They say classical music makes the best study tunes, but are we really limited to Bach and Mozart?

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You've probably heard that classical music is good for studying, taking tests and doing creative work. This idea stems from the "Mozart Effect," a term coined in 1993 when scientists discovered that listening to Mozart's Sonata for 10 minutes resulted in better spatial reasoning skills -- a particular type of intelligence that involves visualizing and manipulating images in your brain. 

The findings in that 1993 study got blown out of proportion, however, and classical music became synonymous with intelligence: so synonymous, in fact, that in 1998, then-Governor of Georgia Zell Miller proposed sending a classical cassette tape to every baby born in the state, free of charge, so that the babies would become smart. 

Even though the Mozart Effect has been more or less debunked in the time since, some experts still argue that music can offer other benefits to our brains -- namely, concentration and productivity. 

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How can music help us focus?

Consider these few reasons why music might help you plow through your to-do list: 

Elicits positive emotions: People tend to be more productive and efficient when happy (recent research confirms this), and the right kind of music can put a little pep in your step. People who listen to music, in fact, may be happier overall than people who don't listen to music.

Makes you feel upbeat: Sometimes, work and life just feel drab. If you've been feeling bored, a happy tune can make lackluster tasks seem more appealing. 

Drowns out other noise: If you've ever worked in a coffee shop or an office with an open floor plan, you've probably been driven up the wall by the sounds of someone sniffling or shuffling their feet. Listening to music, particularly through a good pair of headphones, can drown out distracting noises.

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If you can't stand the sounds of your work environment, use music to drown them out. 

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Can music really make you more productive?

Research on music for productivity is inconclusive, to say the least. Some studies show that background music can improve your episodic memory and overall cognitive performance, yet other research suggests that background music can actually be a detriment to your ability to focus and learn. Still others say that it has no effect one way or another.

There are factors that affect whether background music works, too: Some research suggests that background music needs to be free of lyrics in order to promote productivity; other studies say simply that whether music aids in concentrating depends on how much a worker likes or dislikes the music

Note that the studies discussed in this section measure something different than the aforementioned Mozart Effect. While the Mozart Effect measures the ability of music to enhance intelligence after the music stops playing, research on music for productivity investigates background music, or music that plays while your attention is primarily on something else (your work).

What kind of music helps us focus? 

With the fact that there's no real scientific consensus in mind, it's worth looking at the handful of research studies on different types of music and their ability to aid in concentration.

Classical music

Despite the muting of the Mozart Effect, some research still suggests that classical music can help people learn and focus (just not as impressively so as the 1990s would have you believe). For example, one study found that college students who listened to classical music during lecture learned more than those who listened to the same lecture without classical music. Some research suggests, however, that classical (or any type of complex) music is best when performing simple tasks, rather than complicated ones.

Ambient music

Ambient music is a style of gentle, tone-based music that utilizes ambient sounds like the hum of an air conditioner or the buzz of TV static. Ambient music often lacks a true beat, usually doesn't have lyrics, and ends up blending into the preexisting background noise -- this is why ambient sounds like white noise are often used at sleep aids

In terms of focus and productivity, one study found that white noise can help people with ADHD ignore noisy environments and perform tasks with more efficiency. There's still a lot of work to do, however, when it comes to understanding when ambient noise helps and when it doesn't, according to recent research from the University of Alberta.

Nature sounds

We already know that spending time in nature is good for our physical health. It turns out that listening to nature sounds, even when trapped in an office, can boost your mood and promote deep focus. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York found that soothing nature sounds, such as rainfall, can mask intrusive sounds and help workers stay on task. 

This Nature Sounds playlist on Spotify has more than one million monthly listeners, a good indication that the playlist works for something, be it relaxation, sleep or focus. 

What type of music to avoid

Just as particular styles of music can help you focus and get things done, other styles can sabotage your efforts no matter how strong your work ethic. There's no research that explicitly compares the effects of different types of music on productivity, but most people can probably agree that it's best to avoid distracting styles, such as dubstep music and heavy metal, while working. 

Truly, though, it all comes down to personal preference. And it's not as if experimenting with background music can really hurt -- we're talking about music here, not whether a food additive is safe or not. The worst outcome is a slow day at work and perhaps a bit of scolding from your boss. 

You should know yourself well enough to understand what types of music and sounds help you focus, and which ones don't. If you find yourself struggling to focus with '80s classic rock in the background, maybe it's a good idea to turn off the Guns N' Roses and switch to something with less electric guitar.  

It's worth experimenting to find out what kind of music helps you focus. I personally can't listen to any music, regardless of style or tempo, that has lyrics. I've tried and tried and failed. I just get too caught up in the words and can't concentrate on the task at hand.

Instead, I've found that I focus much better when listening to soft electronic music or nature sounds (particularly rain and waterfalls). Some of my most productive days have been the result of simply switching on a floor fan to block out distracting noises. 

In the end, as with all things, do what works best for you.   

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.