Music during work – helps or disturbs?

komputer i słuchawki
komputer i słuchawki

Published: 01-01-2022

Some people like to listen to music while working, while others prefer to work in silence and say that music makes it difficult to concentrate. How is it actually? As with everything in psychology – it depends ;)

Participants in the study by Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello (2019) performed a variety of tasks, including easy (searching through a list of words and crossing out those containing the letter “a”) and difficult (remembering pairs of words). Some performed tasks in silence and others listening to instrumental music that was loud or soft and simple or complex.

Simple music is one that is performed with one or two instruments, the melody does not change often, and usually has a slow tempo (listen). Complicated music, on the other hand, can contain many different instruments, a variable melody, and usually has a faster pace (listen).

We found that participants who listened to simple music or worked in silence did just as well when performing an easy task, and those who listened to complex music performed best.

In the case of a difficult task, worse results were obtained by those who listened to the music, no matter what the music was and how loud it was played.

This is probably because we have limited mental resources that we use for both listening to music and performing tasks. A difficult task requires more resources, so if we try to listen to music at the same time, our brain can become “overstimulated”. But too little stimulation is not good either. We then become bored and this makes it difficult to concentrate. Adding a stimulus in the form of music can then help keep you focused on the task at hand.

So the challenge is to find the “golden mean”, that is, to obtain the level of stimulation that will allow us to perform the most optimally.

Individual factors are also important. Several studies have shown that music makes it easier for extroverts to perform tasks and makes it more difficult for introverts. Gonzalez and Aiello, on the other hand, focused on examining another personality trait, susceptibility to boredom, namely the preference for external stimulation.

Susceptibility to boredom determines our tendency to feel bored. Some are constantly bored and cannot find activities that interest them, others hardly ever feel bored and most (as is always the case with personality traits) are somewhere in the middle.

In terms of susceptibility to boredom, there is a preference for internal and external stimulation. Internal stimulation refers to our ability to maintain our optimal state of arousal, and in particular, our internal resources. People with a high preference for internal stimulation tend to be creative and inventive, and have the ability to positively value everyday experiences and see interesting elements in them. In contrast, people with a preference for external stimulation need stimulation from outside. That is why they often engage in exciting activities, they need a lot of changes and variety.

Gonzalez and Aiello explain that people with a preference for external stimulation look for external stimuli, so they pay more attention to the pictures and sounds in their environment. For this reason, music may use up more of these people’s mental resources and it may be more difficult for them to find the right balance.

The results showed that indeed – in people with a strong preference for external stimulation, complex music made it difficult to perform even easy tasks.

So when you do simple, repetitive tasks, the right music can help you stay focused. However, if it’s more mental work, you’ll likely be more productive in silence. It is also worth remembering that we are different and what makes one person’s work easier, may make it difficult for another.


  1. Working from home: What the research says about whether listening to music can help you focus
  2. Gonzalez, M. F., Aiello, J. R. (2019). More Than Meets the Ear: Investigating How Music Affects Cognitive Task Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (pdf)
  3. Flakus M. (2018). Wstępna charakterystyka psychometryczna polskiej adaptacji Skali Podatności na Nudę (BPS). Polskie Forum Psychologiczne, 23(4), 783–802. (tekst)

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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