Songs or Silence

Should you listen while you work?

Our technological boom has given rise to media available at all times and in all places — including the workplace. The advent of the radio brought music, stories, and news to people in their homes. Then, their cars. And now, after many iterations of technology and place, sound-based media can be consumed as long as a person has access to their mobile device of choice.

Yet. though we have the ability to listen, should we?

My cubicle is adjacent to two well-traveled corridors, one of which also has a doorway to the stairwell. The comings and goings are often quite distracting. Music (and noise-reducing headphones) is often all that stands between the ambient noise and a productive day.

Repetitive tasks can also be distracting in and of themselves as the brain wanders in an effort to find something more stimulating. The miles upon miles I swam in high school found me conjugating French and Spanish verbs as a way to pass the time. (iPods had not yet been invented and I was not in possession of a waterproof Discman.) In the great oral tradition of the Anglo-Saxon era, shepherds and blacksmiths had a wealth of epic poetry (songs) filling their minds and available to them as they worked. Barring that, the tedium may have chipped away at their sanity.

When I need to focus on a highly creative task, music is the main thing that can get me into a good flow. I work in a creative profession, so a good flow is crucial. Music keeps my left brain busy so my right brain can get to work.

However, I also know that when I am trying to read or write more than a simple email, it is generally impossible to make much progress with the sounds of Weezer in my ears. And if I am trying to study, all retention disappears as soon as Coldplay comes on.

Neuroscientists and entrepreneurs alike agree that music has its place in day-to-day work, but that it must be used for specific tasks only, namely those involving repetitive tasks or those for which the music will drown out a noisy, distracting workplace. For all other tasks, listening takes the place of productivity. You may feel more productive, because you are entertained, but you are often accomplishing less.

Neither the neuroscientists nor entrepreneurs take into account the need of sound during the creative process, but forgiving that, it seems that, given my experiences, the neuroscientists and entrepreneurs are generally right. If we believe our workplaces deserve our good efforts, not our good entertainment, then we should take care to think about the task at hand before we press play.


Photo by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash

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