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How to Use Music to Boost Your Productivity

Calm classics or energizing powerhouses can take your productivity up several notches.

Music and productivity
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For more than 50 years, music therapists have used a practice called the “iso principle” to help people transform their moods through music.

The iso principle meets people where they are with music that reflects their emotional state. Then, the therapist gradually introduces musical selections that gently encourage their client’s mood in the direction they wish to go. A music therapist might measure a client’s heart rate and match a fast-tempo piece of music to their beat. Subsequent music will gradually slow in rhythm, which will ease the client toward a lower heart rate and a calmer feeling.

Researchers have identified 121 beats per minute as an optimal tempo for productivity—that’s the tempo of Whitney Houston’s 1987 song “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

But at work, many of us are better served by listening to music without “narrative lyrics,” or words that tell a story or evoke feelings. Several studies have connected lyrical songs such as pop songs with lower productivity because we just can’t help focusing on the familiar words, which distracts us from the task at hand.

Multiple studies also have connected music with improved mood, which cascades into productivity because upbeat and relaxed feelings are important ingredients in a successful work experience. 

So how should you choose the right music to help you boost your productivity? It depends—on your state of mind as well as the nature of your task.

If you are doing a repetitive task that doesn’t require complex thinking but asks you to stay alert and focused for a long time, more exciting or complex music could keep you energized and engaged.

If you are doing deep or creative thinking, you might like to choose music that is calm, grounding and that gives your mind space to fill in the complex blanks.

And then there’s your mood. If you’re feeling sluggish or down, a slight increase in the energetic vibe of your music can inch your mood up, perhaps enough to help you plug in to your work with renewed energy.

If you are having trouble slowing down enough to focus, add a “slow song” to your playlist, perhaps a gentle classical piece, to bring your mind comfortably into your body, ready to work.

Just remember the “iso principle,” so you don’t try to make a mood or productivity shift that’s too jarring. Meet yourself where you are….and let the melody of your day unfold from there.

Do you feel music helps your productivity?

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