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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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

This is common sense: turn off the music if you start feeling ear fatigue. 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 Link

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? Link

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? Link

1. Increase Relaxation Link

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 Link

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 tobiastoft7)

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 Link

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.


Footnotes Link

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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

    Having your ear hear music while working is really great, I’m doing this all the time. Before I had to concentrate in a matter of 5-6 hours for a certain web site design using Photoshop. By hearing music while working, I’ve manage to do a certain design in an hour or two — maximum. Great impact.

  2. 2

    Sunny Singh

    July 4, 2010 12:50 am

    Sometimes I like working in silence, but for the most part music really helps me concentrate better or simply stay relaxed. I even turn on the radio sometimes too, which might be a personal thing.

  3. 3

    For quality electronic ambient music, check out artists from Ultimae records, such as Carbon Based Lifeforms, Solar Fields, Aes Dana, Cell, …

  4. 5

    well, I do this.
    but the problem is when you go into it, and start singing !!
    here it comes; the work goes really slow & start losing concentration to details!
    I still play music, except when there is a deadlines, it freaks me out..
    > workes at midnight XD

    • 6

      Zlatan Halilovic

      July 4, 2010 4:06 am

      Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I get distracted when there are a lot of lyrics in a song, especially in the one that I know and like. That’s why I listen to “raw” drum and bass when I design. No lyrics; only drum…and bass :D

      • 7

        Nathan Hangen - Digital Emperor

        July 5, 2010 8:02 pm

        Exactly why I like electronic music (no lyrics), and even though he doesn’t say so…this dude makes some of the best.

  5. 10

    Gaurav Mishra

    July 4, 2010 1:27 am

    I like slow vibes in music and rhythmical only.. and no shouts and freakishness as in Metal
    Music. It also opens the creative door inside when outside door seems to closed

  6. 11

    It depends whether the project is difficult or not: in the first case, music may hinder the progress. On the other hand, it may speed up the completion of an easier work.

  7. 12

    Wynter Jones

    July 4, 2010 1:33 am

    I must say this is extremely relevant to working in the environment that we do in this industry. A little surprised this wasn’t discussed already, but when the work is flowing you can guarantee the music is flowing as well.

    The only problem can be it is distracting, when looking for that “one” song on YouTube. That is why I must comment to recommend – obvious choice, but hit play and work for hours without even thinking about it.

  8. 13

    Srecko Bradic

    July 4, 2010 1:50 am

    Absolutely!!! I have no TV but my radio is turn on for all day! Music is life!

  9. 14

    Great article!

    I, personally, work a MUCH better while listening music of my iPod. I feel motivated and focused *some people can’t believe it*. Thanks for sharing.

  10. 15

    I really like the article, but, nomatter what music I’m listening to (I’m into virtually anything) I simply cannot concentrate when there’s a tune in my head. I find myself no longer thinking about what I’m coding or designing, and instead thinking about chord progressions. I’m a bit useless like that.

    Any suggestions?

    • 16

      Zlatan Halilovic

      July 4, 2010 4:09 am

      Here’s one. Don’t listen to music when you code and design. Helpful? xD

    • 18

      Don Giannatti

      July 6, 2010 9:31 am

      I know what you mean. If the music becomes too melodic and /or words start to inject themselves into the brain, I turn to music that is less melodic or even episodic in its form.

      Webern, Stravinski, Shoenberg, Mahler and some of the modern composers like Piston, Ives or Carter are often found on the speakers here. The lack of over and over again melodic centers provide a nice counterpoint to the design process.

      Jazz can work well too. Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Steve Kuhn, Miles Davis (Bitches Brew and “In a Silent Way” are particularly good) can add a subtle trance like flow to the studio vibe.

      Just a few ideas for you.

  11. 19

    Slayeeeer ! m/ :)) Jokes aside, yes heavy stuff makes me work faster, but sometimes it can get a bit distracting so I tune in to some Miles, its good to keep your styles varied so then you can apply them for different tasks.

    • 20

      I tend to put some of Slayer’s more familiar stuff on like Reign in Blood when I’m coding. Still sounds awesome but is familar enough to help me concentrate. I’ve also found Opeth are good for graphic design!

  12. 21

    I have to disagree about music creating distraction though. When you’re really involving in whatever you’re doing; coding or designing, you wouldn’t even notice what you’re listening.

    Well, I’m a trance music addict.

    • 22

      Nathan Hangen - Digital Emperor

      July 5, 2010 8:02 pm

      You and me both.

      • 23

        Sander van der Beek

        July 8, 2010 12:06 pm

        That makes three of us! I listen a lot of trance while designing and coding, the melodies keeps my flow going. Only when I need to do the more difficult work like scripting and programming I prefer silence.

  13. 24

    Ali Blackwell

    July 4, 2010 4:32 am

    If the music is really familiar, I don’t find it distracting. But trying to listen to new music whilst designing or coding is always a no-no for me. Your brain cannot focus entirely on the task in hand with music playing. It’s good for getting into the zone, but once you’re there, the less distractions – including music – the better.

  14. 25

    For me is metal and heavy rock ;) love creating things with this music

  15. 26

    Yes Music is life. I always listen music while working. I prefer to listen Gazal’s while coding its makes my Code cool :)

  16. 27

    Razer Maharajan

    July 4, 2010 6:07 am

    Music help to improve work and get new idea as well as doesnot fill tired. So I always listen music while working .Without music there is no life

  17. 28

    Jazz in it’s best form… from ’50 of ’60
    inspiration comes standard, example.. look for django..

  18. 29

    Having music on the background helps me to relax and get into the groove on slicing graphics, and laying out and coding pages. My favorites to listen to are online stations Audio Popsicle, Groove Salad or Radio Paradise. Keeping them in an iTunes playlist makes it easy to switch between them. I have to admit that when I hit a tough piece of coding, the music gets turned way down or off.

    • 30

      Michael Lajlev

      July 4, 2010 10:53 am

      Im also really into radio paradise, love it and is big supporter.

  19. 31

    What a poor case of stating the obvious this article is. After reading it, my rough guess was that there are going to be some DJ mixes to be found at the authors website.

    Are you turning into a marketing place for writers without further studying the topic now, Smashingmag?

    • 32

      Julian Gaviria

      July 4, 2010 8:41 pm

      Your retarded <—-about as useful of a post as yours is.

  20. 33


    July 4, 2010 7:28 am

    Definitely an awesome article!


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