My brother in a small concert, his new album will be out soon (in french).

Earlier this week, Tyler Hayes published a blog post about the music he likes to listen when designing. Aaron did something slightly different, he asked a bunch of designers to share the music they listen while working. Although it’s interesting to discover colleagues’ taste on music, the real question is: is it a good thing to listen to music while working?

My own experience thaught me to avoid any kind of noise when working on any task requiring a high level of concentration. For more repetitive tasks or basic design work I’ll listen to music or the radio from time to time. However I am pretty sure that you can reach a higher level of concentration with no noise around.

This said, I am definitly not a productivity expert, that’s why I asked the question “Is listening to music when doing creative work a good thing?” to some productivity experts. Their answers are worth a look.

I would say that listening to instrumental music can be a positive influence while doing creative work. Music with words might be a distraction…

Leo Babauta of ZenHabits

I can’t listen to music while trying to do anything that requires deep concentration.  It is usually too distracting unless I’m doing something very simple. However, I have a Master’s degree in music composition and it may be different for people who have less of a background in music.

There was an experiment where they hooked musicians and non musicians to brain scanners and had them play or attempt to play musical instruments.  When going through the actions of playing a musical instrument, both the musicians and non-musicians activated the same parts of the brain.  However, when they took away the instrument and played recorded music, the musicians brains were activated in the same way just by listening.  The non-musicians brains were not activated in this way.

So for a musician, doing work while listening to music might be kind of like trying to concentrate while playing the piano.

I have found that some music is easier to listen to while working than others.  The best thing I’ve found for working is Mozart piano sonatas.   Harpsichord music and music by Stravinsky are some of the worst.

Generally though if I want background noise, I’ll us a recording of waves, a brook or rain like the ambient sounds you can demo here: http://www.productivity501.com/ambient-sound/

Mark W. Shead of Productivity501

I had to think about it for a few days in order to formulate my answer. I think that it depends on the person. I know that personally, I like listening to music when I’m creating, whether it be creating for business or for pleasure. Music can set the tone of what you are doing: heavy, fast music for getting down to business, light, airy music for thought-processing and mind-mapping, and good ole rock–n-roll for the rest. If you are creating something that is dark and foreboding, then a somber classical piece may inspire you more. If you are creating a fall landscape, then something lighter may be in order.

I know people that are on both sides of the fence: some listen to music and some do not. It really does depend on the person. But for this person, I say yes! It absolutely can make me more productive, focused and have the ability to Get Things Done faster.

Kris Rowlands of Fresh Focus

Ok, if you want a good answer, then you must formulate a good question. I would first ask “What do you mean by ‘creative’ and what do you mean by ‘good thing’?” but I’ll go on the assumption that you mean artistic creativity of a visual nature and that good thing means conducive to producing better results than without listening to music.

The process of conscious thinking is dependent upon asking questions and then coming up with answers. It is language based. If you are doing conscious problem solving of some kind, or creative writing of some kind, then you will be conducting an internal process of asking and answering questions. Any unrelated questions that pop into your mind will break your concentration and sidetrack you. For this reason, I don’t listen to music when doing this kind of creative activity. Music with singing will keep those parts of my brain that listen and respond to speech constantly active and from time to time words or phrases from a song will break my concentration. That’s a no-no for me.

I could listen to instrumental music but that kind of music can affect your mood and so, without conscious awareness, your thinking might be affected by the type of music that you listen to, so again, it’s music off for me when I really want to concentrate on processes that are Q&A/language based.

Some things that we do are much more physical than abstract and in this case our subconscious and especially the motor functions of our brains come into effect. Dancing has a large intuitive component to it. You learn steps and moves consciously but through repetition you transfer those actions to your subconscious. You no longer have to consciously think about how to do them. It’s the same with playing an instrument. After a while, you build up such a high level of skill that you just flow with what you are doing.

This also happens for me when I draw or paint. I have sufficiently high levels of technical skill that I don’t have to consciously think about how to carry out my actions. I just do them. In this situation, I find that music can help a lot. Rhythms can induce a trance like state that helps with the flow state. Emotional music can be selected to harmonize with the artistic effect that you are trying to achieve. The words of songs can occupy the conscious mind and give it something else to focus on so that the subconscious is given free range.

In the past, people used to have work songs that made doing boring, hard or repetitive tasks much more pleasant. Sailors had their shanties, chain gangs had their work songs, field workers had their folk songs (and a lot of traditional dance moves have their origins in the movements of work activities). Singing makes people happy and it stops you from otherwise focusing on all of the things that you could so easily find dissatisfaction with. Sadly, knowledge workers no longer have that option (so let’s thank those wonderful Japanese for inventing a substitute: karaoke!). The conscious mind is continually required to do problem solving. Repetitive tasks that can be handed over to the subconscious are becoming fewer and further in between.

So, the answer to your question depends upon what you are doing.
Is listening to music when doing creative work a good thing?
Yes, if it’s a physical activity that is largely carried out and controlled by the subconscious.
No, if it’s a thought based activity that is largely carried out and controlled by the conscious.

Sorry for the long-winded answer. I always wish to convey understanding as this makes learning and acting so much easier to do. When you understand something, you know it and you don’t forget it. It just takes a little longer to get to that point in the first place :)

For those seriously interested in this topic, this is a most excellent book on how music affects your brain: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
by Daniel Levitin

Nick Pagan of Nickpagan.com