The right kind of sound can relax your mind, hone your focus, drown out distractions or get you pumped to kill your to-do list. We've assembled some research and free resources to help you create your own best workspace soundtrack.
Photo by Sara Björk.
Does music really make you more productive?
The answer falls somewhere between "listening to Mozart makes you a genius" and "just be quiet and work".
The most well-known research into the question of music's effect on the mind involves the so-called Mozart effect, which suggests that listening to certain kinds of music—Amadeus Wolfgang's classical works, in particular—impacts and boosts one's spatial-temporal reasoning, or the ability to think out long-term, more abstract solutions to logical problems that arise. The Mozart effect has been overblown and over-promised to ambitious parents and would-be creative types, but that doesn't mean there isn't some science behind the idea of a great work-boosting playlist.
The Workplace Doctors site details both sides of the question. In one study, University of Illinois researchers found that listening to music in "all types of work" increased work output 6.3% over a control group. In another study (dissected at MetaFilter), 56 employees working on basic computer tasks were found to be more productive when there was no music playing over the same period tested with music.
So the real answer turns out to be, unfortunately, "it depends". It depends on whether your office or workspace is noisy enough that a good kind of noise or music is preferable to the natural cacophony. It depends on your personal attention span, and how likely you are to fiddle with controls versus letting a music stream trickle past your ears. Though many of the final answers to studies of music at work conflict, the general consensus seems to be that people can be boosted at work by music, if they're willing to be.
If that sounds like you, here's a few suggestions on where to find music that others have found helpful in their own workspaces.
The classical route
How it works: The ornate instrumentation and composition of Baroque classical music gets a lot of attention for its possible mind-boosting effects. Eight radiologists were asked to go about their day while listening to Baroque-period tunes. They mostly self-reported better mood and productivity, except for one worker who said the music had a negative effect on his concentration.
Followers of Getting Things Done and productivity writer David Allen note in forum posts that the man himself seems to dig Vivaldi's "Four Seasons", Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3 and other Baroque tunes as mood-setters for tackling tasks. A key suggestion from a David Allen forum poster — look for tracks paced at about 60 beats per minute:
It's the beats-per-minute required to get the brain up to optimal revs. David has a segment about it on GTD Fast – I also came across it at a speed-reading class. It seems to cause a "bright and breezy" frame of mind where thinking and creativity are easier. I find it works.
Where to get it: Being often hundreds of years old and a niche interest these days, classical music is relatively easy to find online. Wikipedia has hundreds of freely-licensed files, and public domain search sites like Musopen offers a lot of good stuff, too.
If the Baroque sound doesn't quite do it for you, Lifehacker commenter Catalyst suggests the Vitamin String Quartet, which covers pop tunes in string quartet/chamber music style. It's not the same kind of down-deep arrangement as traditional classical work, but the Quartet's work takes away distracting lyrics and soothes out pop music's more annoying edges. Here's a sample:
The ambient/techno route
How it works: The label "ambient" has been applied far too broadly to be of much help to anyone but record store owners. Still, at it's core, all ambient music is designed not to jump in your face, but still keep your brain engaged at a lower, subconscious level. Pioneers like Brian Eno developed ambient music as an experiment in composition, allowing algorithms, randomness, synthesisers and whatever sounded neat replace the standard pop music needs of melody, direct harmony and rehab.
A modern variant, chillout, and its categorical cousins downtempo, ambient house and certain varieties of IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, grew out of a need for dancers and partiers at techno clubs to take a break, relax and recover from their efforts, along with whatever else they needed recovering from. Like the original ambient music, much of it is designed to relax the mind and allow it to roam, while providing just enough stimulation to register as inspiration.
Where to get it: Brian Ashcraft at our gaming-focused sibling blog Kotaku find Eno's Music for Airports to be superior music for deep tasks and serious studying. It was designed, after all, for actual airports, to put passengers at ease in an often stressful situation, right before getting on a tube that some consider their worst fear.
Gina and many, many commenters dig the Groove Salad stream and other stations, like Drone Zone and Secret Agent, provided by Soma.fm. Half as many recommend the ambient offerings at Digitally Imported, and often flip between it and Soma.fm for fresh streams. Both sites provide free audio to most any music player that can tune in web playlists or radio.
The noise route
How it works: If music is too distracting for your tastes, but your chatty co-workers, office machinery and general clamour are even more distracting, coloured noise might be a worthy addition to your audio repertoire.
Noise generators, usually grouped into groups of white, pink, or brown/red, cover a range of your ear's audible spectrum with generic sound to mask or lessen the distractions of other sounds. Wikipedia's entry on sound masking puts it best:
Imagine a dark room where someone is turning a flashlight on and off. The light is very obvious and distracting. Now imagine that the room lights are turned on. The flashlight is still being turned on and off, but is no longer noticeable because it has been "masked". Sound masking is a similar process of covering a distracting sound with a more soothing or less intrusive sound.
Where to get it: If you can install desktop software where you work, we've previously recommended Noise for Mac OS X and Chatterblocker for Windows as great apps for covering up sounds. Noise creates more straight-up sound waves, while Chatterblocker can recreate office environment noise to fill in notable gaps or introduce other ambient-type sounds, like guitar chords and nature, into your mix.
On the web, we're also partial to Zendesk's Buddha Machine Wall, which randomises and loops relaxing sounds that you choose from among random buttons and speakers. For a more pure white/pink/brown noise generator, try SimplyNoise.
Lost in a sea of random speaker crackle? Editor's tests have found that pink noise generally simulates a waterfall effect, while setting the brown/red noise in SimplyNoise to a low volume, while allowing the volume to fall up and down, or oscillate, provides a soundscape similar to waves hitting the shore off in the distance.
We asked our readers to share the music that helps them get things done, and they showered us with responses. There are a lot of specific artists, albums and genres listed in the comments of that post that might inspire you to re-seed your own playlist, but a few had some unique ideas on what helped them listen while stay productive.
One commenter wrote that listening to radio stations in foreign languages "effectively drowns out the office noise, but because I really don't understand what is being said (though I am learning), my brain tunes even that out". In his case, France Info radio provides the news-but-not-really-news he needs.
wowser808, on the other hand, goes with a more traditional, and heart-warmingly geeky pick: the Blade Runner soundtrack. He notes that Vangelis' ethereal tunes "got me through every single essay at university".
We are still more than open to your suggestions of what music, noise, random sounds, or audio hackery makes for the most productive environment. Tell us your picks in the comments.