Is Music Sabotaging Your Productivity?

Over the past few years, I’ve seen all kinds of conflicting reports…

One day, studies suggest that music boosts your productivity… and the next day, music supposedly hinders it.

Today, I want to shed some light on this controversial topic. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you that—in my view—it really all depends…

What we’ve gathered for certain from the latest research is that the kind of music you listen to matters. It affects your attention span and the quality of your mental performance.

And unless you know which specific tasks certain music works best for, you might be unwittingly sabotaging your best efforts.

In this issue of Sound Health, you’ll learn four strategies for harnessing the power of music to help—rather than hurt—your mental focus and agility. Let’s get started!

1. Avoid music with lyrics when something requires your undivided attention.

If what you’re doing requires a high-level of focus—like tasks involving reading comprehension, information processing, or recalling information from memory—music with lyrics can make your job more difficult.

In a 2012 study from Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, researchers studied the effects of background music on attention and performance in over 100 study participants, aged 20 to 24 years old.

The research team divided the participants into two groups and observed their concentration levels as music played in the background while they took a test. In one group, the researchers played instrumental music, while the other group listened to music with lyrics.

They found that background music with lyrics had negative effects on concentration, attention, and performance among the study participants.

The instrumental music group, on the other hand, achieved much higher scores.

2. Listen to up-tempo music beforehand to increase brain power.

Another technique you can use to boost your brain power is listening to happy, up-tempo music before doing the work.

A 2007 study published in The Psychology of Music, researchers administered an IQ test to two groups of young adults. One group listened to a faster, upbeat song in a major (“happy sounding”) musical key while the other group listened to a slow song played in a minor (“sad sounding”) musical key.

Those who listened to the happier, up-tempo music scored higher on the IQ test. This led researchers to conclude that “music-enhanced cognitive performance is a byproduct of arousal and mood.”

In other words, the best test results occurred in people who listened to music that made them feel excited and happy.

So if you want to help “wake up your brain” and get that brain power flowing, put on your favorite upbeat tunes.

3. Use soft classical music to improve learning or test scores.

In another 2012 study published in Learning and Individual Differences, researchers studied whether soft classical music could improve the absorption and understanding of information.

For the study, approximately 250 students were shown the same videotaped lecture. They were divided into two groups; one listened to classical music while the video was played, while the others listened to the lecture without background music. Following the lecture, both groups took a multiple-choice quiz on subject matter covered in the lecture.

The research team found that the students in the music group scored significantly higher than the non-music group.

4. Play relaxing, repetitive background music to enhance cognitive performance.

Similarly, in a study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills researchers found that playing soft, repetitive ambient music in the background can help enhance performance during tasks requiring sharp mental focus.

Subjects in the study who listened to this type of background music scored higher on cognitive tests than those who took the test in silence.

While we’re on the topic, I quickly want to point out the difference between “ambient” and “instrumental” music. While most ambient music is instrumental, not all instrumental music is ambient.

Ambient music is focused more on tone and creating atmosphere than traditional musical structure and rhythm (like classical music). It uses repetitive, but soothing, sound patterns to generate a sense of relaxation. This is the type of music you might hear at a spa, yoga class, or meditation session.

Music can help make you the next office MVP

So if you ever find yourself trying to be productive in a noisy environment, or just can’t seem to concentrate, try curating your own work-promoting, brain-enhancing audio experience.

Create a few concentration-based playlists to have on hand whenever you need them. Just follow my quick tips below:

  • To boost your brain power and engage your brain, listen to up-tempo music before taking on the task at hand. In these cases, songs with lyrics don’t seem to get in the way of your performance. I made you a playlist of up-tempo music from my band, the Sun King Warriors. Check it out here.
  • If you’re working on something that requires a high level of focus, try repetitive, instrumental music—preferably something you don’t know by heart.

    To get started, I recommend searching the keywords “instrumental playlists” or “classical playlists” on YouTube or audio streaming apps like Spotify, Google Play, or Apple Music.

    Many people also tell me they enjoy working to the ancient drumming grooves in my Brain Healing Therapeutic Audio Tools. (In fact, I often put this on in the mornings while I write to you!)
  • If you’re studying or trying to retain new information, opt for ambient music. (You can find plenty of that in my Donovan Sound Solution audio tool!)

  • Finally, invest in a nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones!

The bottom line: Be strategic with the sound in your environment. It has the power to affect your mood, your concentration, and the quality of your work—so use your music wisely!

Be Well,

Jim Donovan, M.Ed.


Cantor, J. (2013). Is Background Music a Boost or a Bummer? Retrived from:

Cockerton, T., Moore S., and Norman D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background music. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 85(3 Pt 2): pp. 1435-8. Retrieved from:

Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., and Scelles, N. (2012). Music during Lectures: Will Students Learn Better? Learning and Individual Differences. 22(2): pp. 258-262. Retrieved from:

Schellenberg, E., Nakata, T., Hunter, P., and Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music. 35(1): pp. 5 – 19. Retrieved from:

Shih, Y.N., Huang, R.H., and Chiang H.Y. (2012). Background music: effects on attention performance. Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, & Rehabilitation. Retrieved from:

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.