Add Music To Your Workflow To Improve Results


Almost all of us listen to music. We listen at home, while working, on the subway, while driving, while running. Yet many of us don’t think of music as much more than entertainment. Did you know that you can use music as a tool? With the right music, you can increase effectiveness, create better stuff more easily, get into your creative zone quickly and kick-start a productive day. Add music to your workflow for better results.

This isn’t a recent development inspired by the iPod generation. People have been using music as a tool for thousands of years — ever since humans started hitting sticks against rocks. Indigenous peoples used music in rituals and ceremonies, drummers prepared warriors for battles, and significant life events (like weddings and funerals) are still marked with special music.

add music to your workflow
(Image by renneville1)

So, how do you actually use music to increase creativity, productivity and effectiveness? Let’s consider a couple of ways of adding music to your workflow.

Get Into The Zone

Music has a strong influence on mood. Just try listening to some fast-paced energetic music while relaxing, or try getting pumped up with chill ambient soundscapes. It just doesn’t work. So, when you need to create something, play appropriate music to quickly get in the zone.

Different kinds of music complement different creative tasks:

  • Listen to airy and melodic music to design something that needs to feel light and warm.
  • Dark and industrial graphics? Put on some heavier music.
  • Futuristic and exciting visuals? Play some energizing, progressive electronic music.

It’s like role-playing. The background music is your theme song, and you’re acting out the role. Each task to accomplish, each project you work on, becomes the mission of your “character.”

Get Energized and Get Focused

The human body naturally moves to rhythm. Whenever you hear a beat, you react to it subconsciously. Notice how people tap their feet or snap their fingers to whatever music is playing around them? You don’t need a sports drink or motivational coach to get going: upbeat music will energize you.

Of course, what counts as “energetic music” differs from person to person. Fast-paced rhythms and uplifting melodies work for many, and laid-back beats and airy vibes do it for others. For some, it’s heavy and dark tunes. Whatever makes you feel like doing things, that’s your energetic music.

So, to start with a bang, get motivated for a task or simply go for an invigorating run, listen to music that energizes you. Listen to whatever gets you excited in a “grab life by the throat and get big things done” way.

When it’s too quiet, your mind can wander. You start paying attention to every little sound and get sidetracked thinking about random things. Playing music of a consistent style in the background helps you stay focused and reigns in your wandering mind.

get focused
(Image by williambrawley2)

Even if you’re not paying attention to the music, a steady rhythm induces a meditative state of mind: you focus on the task at hand because you’re subconsciously being carried along by the music. There are no inconsistent noises to distract you or hinder your progress. Think of it like white noise (like rustling trees or rolling waves). Consistent, even ambient sound helps you working consistently. Style- and vibe-specific DJ mixes, as well as “smart” playlists, can be great for this. An example of this are online radio stations Pandora3, Grooveshark4 and Last.FM5.

Background music doesn’t help everyone focus. For some, it can be a distraction; some work better in silence. And if that works well for you, there’s no need to stop. But if you find yourself getting distracted from time to time, give it a shot.

Next time you lose focus, put on some music and see how the next hour turns out. There’s a good chance you’ll be more focused and productive.

When To Turn Off The Music

As the saying goes, one can have too much of a good thing. As much as music helps you to work, is there a time to turn it off?

when to turn music off
(Image by odreiuqzide6)

1. Ear Fatigue

This is common sense: turn off the music if you start feeling ear fatigue7. An aching head or throbbing ears will obviously distract you from work. Before you roll your eyes, consider that this is actually a common problem, especially for those who use headphones. After a few hours, non-stop music will tire your ears. Just as you should take frequent breaks to stretch, move and look around, so should you give your ears a break.

2. Distraction

Music should be turned off when it starts distracting you. This probably won’t happen for a while, especially if you’re busy creating. But again, too much of a good thing is bad.

When you start paying more attention to the music than to what you’re doing, turn it off for a while. The change of pace will help you refocus, after which you can always put it back on.

What About Shared Space?

Sure, playing music whenever you like is fine if you’re a freelancer who works from home or a location-independent person or someone who has their own office. But what if you work in a shared space? Is it a good idea to put music on in the background for everyone? Or is it better to keep the space quiet?

There do not seem to be any strict social conventions, so if a group is working on the same project and they don’t require complete silence, play some mood-appropriate music. It might get the creative juices flowing and get everyone into a steady rhythm. After all, the point is to produce coherent, creative results. Working to a soundtrack can help a group gel.

Returning to the analogy of role-playing, a shared musical experience while working can be like group role-playing. Think of your work as a “World of Warcraft” raid, with the right background theme to keep you all on task. A more probable analogy is office decor, which creates a distinct atmosphere of its own. Like furniture and decoration, music can augment a working atmosphere.

Neutral music (i.e. nothing too experimental) won’t distract. Of course, the group should decide together; if everyone can agree on a certain niche genre, then so be it.

What Else Does Music Do?

1. Increase Relaxation

Whether you play music while working, you can still use it to enrich your breaks. Music is especially helpful if you’re feeling stressed out and need a moment to relax. Relaxing instantaneously is nearly impossible, probably because shifting focus so quickly is hard. If you’ve been thinking about one thing, transitioning to something else can take a while.

Music, whether upbeat or tranquil, can facilitate the transition. It’s like auditory yoga, except you’re not forcing yourself to do anything uncomfortable; the music does the work for you.

2. Improve Presentations

Just as appropriate music lends itself to different creative atmospheres, it can also influence viewers of your presentations. Choose the right music and they’ll be interested, excited, even ready to buy.

A good presentation might use music at key moments. Even a tacky ’80s hit could work: it could trigger nostalgia, thus winning over your client. The right musical “moment” could lead to viewers purchasing or investing in your product, following your guidelines or just paying closer attention.

If you want prospective clients to take interest in your service, elicit their enthusiasm by playing music with an exciting build-up. To drive home a point or highlight a feature or benefit, sync a track so that the musical climax occurs at that point in the presentation.

convincing presentation
(Image by tobiastoft8)

Basically, decide what you want to achieve with your presentation. What is the viewers’ call to action? What do you want them to do afterward? Add music that suits the content of your presentation and that complements the emotional journey you want viewers to take. Music in a presentation elicits emotional investment, and you’ll probably get better results.

Music Creates Mood

Clearly, music isn’t just entertainment. The right kind of music is a tool that improves your day — and not just your mood: it can increase and sustain your creativity, productivity and effectiveness.

Remember these three reasons to add music to your workflow: to get into your creative zone faster, to stay energized and motivated and to get more important stuff done in less time.



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Oleg Mokhov is an electronic music artist and design enthusiast. He makes electronic music that's a cross between Four Tet and Boards of Canada.

  1. 1

    I’d like to add to my first comment, that this article nowhere lives up to the profound standards of SM.

    It doesn’t add any info to the headline and also doesn’t elaborate that you can also get into the opposite direction by listening to music. Especially when talking about choice of music in presentations.

    Asides, listening to music in shared spaces is a strict no-go for various reasons. Taking this into credit, it’s nothing more than stating the obvious.

  2. 52

    Anders Nygaard

    July 5, 2010 2:25 am

    Interesting. I used to listen to music while making music in the old days of tracking. The background music could be something completely different to the project at hand. But – definitely a boost of creativity.

  3. 103

    great article indeed.. I just can’t do anything without listening to some music.. It surely helps to boost my productivity and to keep me alive! m/

  4. 154

    I always hear music while designing anything……because it focuses the mind towards the work and avoid distraction from others…….its a great solution and hope that others too will do….

  5. 205

    Buddha Bar…

  6. 256

    No life without music.

  7. 307

    Although I sometimes use music to help me stay energised, if I’m doing something that requires serious concentration, I find music gets in the way. There’s actually some research that indicates music hinders rather than improves concentration e.g…

    I believe creative workers should be allowed to choose for themselves what to listen to, when to listen to it, and otherwise manage their own audio environment, so I don’t agree with the playing of music in shared work spaces.

  8. 358

    Cyrying out Loud

    July 5, 2010 5:02 am

    Listen music when you are working. OMG!!!!
    I never thought or did that. You guys rock!!!

    What a waste of space…
    Seriously guys what is happening at smashingmagazine
    what happened to your great articles. I learned so much from this site but over 3-4 months all i am getting is Military showcases, listening music, Applying Interior Design Principles To The Web?????????????????

    epic fail for smashing magazine

    • 409

      I feel the same way. You guys have helped me so much in the past. Whats happening?

      Hope its just temporary!

  9. 460

    The article is well written but it looks like one of the typical symptoms of the blogging-world: Writing stuff about just ANY random or obvious stuff. Don’t know if it’s people who rely on blogs for trivial advice or if it’s writers who don’t know what to write about, but generally, not finding articles like that is one of the reasons i enjoy reading SM.

    Honestly – this is a 2 page article about why it’s nice to listen to music – does ANYBODY really need advice like that? No honestly, does anyone really think you’d need to get advice off the internet to find out that listening to nice music is good for your creative process? If so, the world of creative professionals would habe become dangerously dull…

    I’m sorry to use an example like that, but you could as well write an article about how it’s a good practice to use toilet paper and why it’s preferable to take soft one…

  10. 511

    I’m sorry to be another spoilsport.

    Let me tell you a story from my workplace.

    One day, one of my colleagues (I share my office with 6 colleagues) had the idea of playing a mainstream radio station at work. Music everyone except me could agree upon. I found myself unable to bear mainstream music as a background noise, even if it’s very soft. I found myself sighing with relief when my colleagues switched it off, and I am grateful that the colleague that came up with the idea doesn’t play music on his loudspeakers any more when I am around.

    Why? The simple explanation: I am a classical singer and a musicologist. Thus, my brain is conditioned to register music as possibly important information. Music I even slightly dislike or that just doesn’t fit my mood tends to be terribly distracting for me. Oh, and then there is the music I like where I find myself listening to the guitar part, admiring the musical craftsmanship or singing along or indulging in the emotional intensity… all of these are way too distracting at work.

    Sometimes, if I can pick music that suits exactly my mood, I like working while listening to music.
    If I’m working on something that requires genuine and intense concentration, I prefer silence.

    • 562

      Well, then that’s what’s best for you. The vast majority of us, however, are not like this. Just because you’re different doesn’t mean the article is wrong. It just doesn’t apply to you. :)

  11. 613

    above & beyond’s podcasts are great!

  12. 664

    Always listen to music while working – it definitely helps, but more often nowadays I’ve been having quiet time and silence and that’s a nice break, it’s just a different zone to get involved in.

  13. 715

    I am a Greek Designer. I love my work. And i love listening to music. Ofcourse for us, online radio is way easier to be listened. So i always have open, when Photoshop and DreamWeaver are opened also! :)

  14. 766

    Rolf Moczarski

    July 5, 2010 1:16 pm

    Music is definetly a important part of my creative progress, but it alway depends on the project and the sort of Customer-busineess

  15. 817

    Benjamin Pries

    July 5, 2010 8:29 pm

    Perhaps it’s cliché, but I often find that listening to classical music is a huge help; though this could be because I enjoy classical music under normal circumstances, and not just as a work assistant.

  16. 868

    Now I finally have an excuse why I have to listen to music in the office! :)
    Even though it really depends on what I’m doing: if I’m working on a document music can be very distracting (especially when it’s your favorite song and you sing along in your head ^^), but for creative work music is a big inspiration for me.

  17. 919

    This article is just dictating the obvious

  18. 970

    Richard Graham

    July 6, 2010 4:45 am

    Really good article, thanks for the info…

  19. 1021

    Kyle A. Matheny

    July 6, 2010 7:38 am

    Good article. Listening to Mezzanine (Massive Attack) right now- killer working music. I find most trip-hop music is very good to listen to while working.

  20. 1072

    For me it only makes sense, if the music has no lyrics, no big breaks and has a constant tune. This makes electronic music like ambient perfekt to listen to. But I stopped listening to music completely some time ago – I just observed, that I was more productive and concentrated, when I have silence around me.
    But there are work breaks, where I e.g. do cooking, while listening to music loudly – nowadays mainly guitar music ;)

  21. 1123

    very nice post. Thanks :)

  22. 1174

    Here is my music playlist if anyone interested in good music. its (my personal music site with hand picked alternative music) :)

  23. 1225

    Perhaps some Ronald Jenkees to uncover hidden, innovative ideas?

  24. 1276

    Music definitely is one great inspiration. I actually cant do anything without music :)

  25. 1327

    I listen to anything by Joe Satriani or Steve Vai to get me in a creative mood.

  26. 1378

    I think this article is relevant, but do agree that it mainly just brings some light to the subject. What I would recommend is an article on how music relates to the design process / how music can be used for audio branding / what parts of the musical creative process overlap with the design process etc!

  27. 1429

    Could someone post an example of a presentation set to music?

  28. 1480

    I’ve actually found that certain types of music keep me in the zone longer. Most of the time when I’m pulling late nights working on code. The best set of music I’ve found is a set of royalty free music called the Soundtraxx music library. Hours and hours of those methodic rythms and electronic beats. Great Post!

  29. 1531

    Good way to look at it. As an “engine of life” music has the great ability to move us in ways no other form of communication can.

  30. 1582

    Listen to heavy SALSA!

    Any type of music is inspirational.

  31. 1633

    Thanks for giving this article to us….. ……

  32. 1684

    I recommend Drake’s new Album …Thank Me Later

  33. 1735

    Cripes, you haters need to chill.

    Harold Budd is all you need.

  34. 1786

    “do it for the love of music” -FFD-

    nice article, thanks

  35. 1837

    great information !!

  36. 1888

    I’d like to add that music with lyrics can be more distracting then music without lyrics (of course, lyrics in a language you don’t understand = music without lyrics).

    If you need to concentrate on ergonomics, a presentation, work with numbers or anything not totally creative, plain music works marvelously.

    Thank you for this great article, Oleg !

  37. 1939

    How about heavy metal?
    Post Hardcore dude.

  38. 1990

    found out psybient is best for working – right into the zone!

  39. 2041

    Recently i found out that trance helps me focus on almost everything i do, because there’s almost no lyrics to get my brain somewhere else and it’s fast-paced and intense.

  40. 2092

    That’s a great post. Where is the source of the information?

  41. 2143

    Interesting article definitely gave me some more insight into the subject. I love listening to music while working I do notice that it tends to help me keep focused, and get my work done (Which is why I listen to techno / metal most of the time. :) ). Of course, it doesn’t just always have to be music, I also found these tips great for when you are really getting into a project, but don’t won’t to wear yourself down.

  42. 2194

    I always work with music and all genres (Rap at the moment). But the type of headphone (if you’re using one) is very important. Hated the Dr. Beats Pro, to heavy and sweaty ears :( I have now an Audio Technica ATH-M50 and they are great! Best sound ever, super light, comfortable and way better priced than the Beats. Love working with it and can hold out hours without getting annoyed of them. Don’t even feel it on my head.


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