Music and Work: Three Moods to Consider

April 2, 2020 | Activate Learning | 5 min read

The other day I could not focus, and I couldn’t help but think I wasn’t alone. Along with much of Skillsoft, the marketing team is now totally remote. For many of us, it’s the first time we are working from home—full-time—and I’m sure others were feeling distracted. I wondered how my teammates were staying focused.

The 2:30 slump hit me hard as I was already struggling with writer’s block and staying motivated. When this happens to me, I can usually turn to a few specific playlists to help me stay focused and creative. My go-to is a soft indie rock/folk playlist—it’s very cathartic, calming and will typically get my creative juices flowing.

A few songs into the playlist, I realized the gloomy melodies and chiming clean guitars weren’t helping; I had made little to no progress on the copy I was working on.

Most of the time, I work with music on. In fact, there are very few tasks I do where I don’t listen to music. Outside of editing copy and proofreading, I always have music on—unless of course I just want silence.

It’s no secret, research shows that listening to music can improve pleasure in doing work-related tasks, as well as boost efficiency and creativity—for the most part. Not being able to listen to music while I work, makes me almost anxious in a way—I can’t focus if all I hear is the white noise of an office or in my case, my apartment.

“I’ll try a different playlist,” I said to myself. I quickly put on a reliable psych-rock driven playlist—another favorite for when I need to focus and be creative. About two songs in, nothing. I was still stuck in my creative rut. I scrolled to a trusty playlist of old-country songs but sadly, neither Willie nor Waylon could help.

Perhaps I needed a break from my usual playlists. I do listen to them in my free time—should I be listening to different music when I work?

I further contemplated, was this creative rut part of a bigger challenge? I used these playlists to concentrate in the office—did I need separate music for working remotely? Desperate for something new, I ran to my social network:

“What kind of music do you listen to when you need to work and/or learn? Looking for genres and vibes that help you concentrate.”

Sure enough, my notifications start going off like crazy. Genre suggestions ranging from classical to lo-fi hip-hop flooded the comment thread of my Facebook status.

I listen to a lot of different music, so seeing the variety of genres people listen to—specifically for concentration—was very intriguing. And due to the overwhelming advocation for classical, I now listen to it with more frequency and so far, it has been helpful for when I need to focus.

It was no surprise to see classical so widely listened to for focus. There was a strong commonality in people who could not listen to music with lyrics, which makes sense as several studies agree that lyrics can be distracting.

But I need variety and listening to just classical during work hours wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted to narrow my search and ask what my teammates were listening to.

I took a poll with the marketing team. Here are the results:

1. Music for productivity and concentration

I asked my peers about their go-to music genre when they really need to focus and concentrate. This was a 3-way tie between classical, rock and nature sounds/white noise for the most popular genre to listen to when you need to concentrate. Folk and soundtracks/cinematic music took second and electronic—of any form and instrumental music all tied for third

2. Music for energy and motivation

Sometimes the hardest challenge to overcome is mustering the energy for mundane tasks—I wanted to know what my team listened to for motivation. Almost half of the responders agree that rock is a great genre for when they need to stay motivated. It was closely followed by electronic and rap/hip-hop who both tied for second—collectively they made up 40% of the votes. Pop finally made an appearance and took third place for a great genre to turn on when you’re buried in spreadsheets and monotony

3. Music for not working—the favorite genre of all time

Lastly, I wanted to see how my team’s favorite genres for working, differed with their favorite genres for when they’re not working. Rock stayed at the top as the all-time favorite genre and out of nowhere, country came in and took second. Pop and soundtracks/cinematic music both tied for third.

A time for music and a time for silence

Since the poll, I’ve started implementing more instrumental music into my rotation. As someone who really connects with lyrics, I’ve always had little interest in instrumental music. And even though I probably won’t listen to it in my free time, I have noticed it has significantly increased my ability to stay focused when I proofread and edit copy—especially towards the end of the day.

When it comes to writer’s block, however, I’ve noticed that sometimes I need to pause music in general and actually talk through the points I want to make, out loud—especially when I’m working from home.

At the very least, this little experiment has taught me how mixing up certain aspects of my routine, can bring fresh vigor to work. I can’t expect every habit and routine to transfer to my new work environment at home. Your office and your home are two very different places, and that’s okay. It’s important to have an open mind and challenge old concentration tactics—especially in times of change.

For me, it was switching up what I listened to when I work. I will always have my favorite playlists for both work and fun, but like anything, it’s always beneficial to switch things up.

Ryan Tidwell is a Content Marketing Specialist at Skillsoft