I know a lot of people who like to listen to music while they’re working. But is it a good idea – or an unnecessary distraction?

Research indicates that the answer to that question isn’t entirely clear cut. Whether or not you should listen to music depends on the type of work you’re doing, the type of music you’re listening to, and the type of person you are.

In a 2019 study, researchers asked three groups of students to complete a series of easy and challenging tasks. (The easy task required them to cross off the words on a list that started with the letter A. The challenging task required them to memorize and recall pairs of words.) The first group of students worked in silence. The second group listened to a simple musical composition while they worked. And the third group listened to a complex musical composition while they worked. Here’s what they found:

  • You shouldn’t listen to music when performing challenging tasks – Study participants who worked in silence did 4% better on the challenging task. So when you’re working on something difficult or demanding, it’s best to not have any distractions.
  • You should listen to music when performing easy, routine tasks – Study participants listening to complex music did 7% better on the easy task than the students who listened to simple music or no music. Researchers theorized that this was because the complex music helped to keep the students’ minds from wandering, and helped them to stay on task.
  • If you’re the kind of person who gets bored easily, you shouldn’t listen to music at all – Students who tended to get bored easily and were frequently looking for some sort of distraction (for instance, by checking their phones) did worse on both types of tasks when any type of music was playing. Researchers believed that this was because they got too involved in the music. So if you feel like you get bored easily and you’re the type of person who checks your social media a lot, it would probably be best to work in silence.

Mitchell, H. (2021, March 22). Listen to music while working? It depends. The Wall Street Journal, R6.