Workers are turning to music as stressful workplaces become the norm. Here’s the science of how it works–and how to find your soundtrack to success


The American work culture is notorious for its long hours, fast pace, and work-at-all-costs mentality. The demands placed on employees often lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression. Work-related stress accounts for billions in lost productivity, absenteeism, and increased healthcare costs annually. This underscores the urgency of addressing the mental health challenges faced by the American workforce.

Mental health issues have been a silent but steadily growing concern among American workers. The constant pressure to perform, meet targets, and excel in a competitive environment takes a toll. Many employees silently battle anxiety and depression, fearing stigma or career consequences if they seek help. The isolation and loneliness that can accompany a demanding work schedule further exacerbate these mental health challenges.

Employees often find themselves trapped in a cycle of stress, anxiety, and reduced productivity, which can impact not only their job performance but their overall quality of life. Depressive episodes are up 90% in the last decade, 83% of workers report work-related stress, and only 24% of workers feel their employers care about their wellbeing.

Helpful harmonies

Given the demands and stress of the modern workplace, executives and employees alike are constantly seeking ways to improve their mental well-being, productivity, and focus. Historically, many have turned to caffeine, exercise, therapy, or meditation to help give them a mental boost during the day, though oftentimes these options aren’t as effective, accessible, or as culturally relevant as a tool that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves: music.

Research has shown that listening to music while working can improve cognitive performance, enhance mood, and boost creativity. There is also good evidence to support that music can improve executive function, particularly when it comes to performance on cognitive tasks that involve sustained attention, response inhibition, repetition, and flow, which is critical when we want to execute tasks efficiently and operate at our best in the workplace.

It’s important to understand the science behind music and the brain. Studies have shown that listening to music can improve negative moods and reduce stress. When we’re in a relaxed, positive state, our brains are primed for productivity: We’re better at attending to and focusing on the work at hand and we get more done. Music stands out in this context because it is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to boost mood and decrease stress, particularly while on the job.

As it turns out, many employees are already taking advantage of music’s many benefits during their workday:  Nielsen reports that 75% of workers listen to music at work at least once a week.

The soundtrack to success

Not all music is created equal–and there are a lot of nuances to consider. Picking the right music requires following these five key tips.

1–Don’t choose based on genre

People often make the mistake of choosing genre as a starting point, believing one specific genre to be more helpful than another. Given there is a lot of structural variance within a genre, it’s better to get more specific than that.

As an initial guidepost, you can start with instrumental music to enhance cognitive performance. This is because instrumental music is less distracting than music with lyrics, which can interfere with verbal processing and memory.

2-Calibrate the tempo and volume

Next, consider tempo and volume. Up-tempo music can be arousing, which is good, but it’s important to not go too high with the tempo, otherwise, you might start a dance party instead of getting down to business.

The same applies to volume, if you go too high the brain will start focusing on the music rather than the task at hand.

3-Get familiar with music texture

Consider texture in the music. Music that is dense in texture will likely be too attention-grabbing to aid in work focus, and music that is too light in texture may not be stimulating enough.

Experiment and see what the right balance is for you. This is one factor that tends to be pretty personal for each of us.

4-Match the music to your mood

Music is not one-size-fits-all and selecting the right music for focus can vary greatly depending on your emotional state, the task you are doing, and your environment. A rule of thumb you can leverage from music therapy is called the iso principle, a technique by which music is matched to the mood of a person, and then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state.

If you’re feeling tired, you might first want to select down-tempo music to match your low-energy profile, helping you to acknowledge and embrace your current mood. Then gradually select music that can pull you out of fatigue into a more energized state.

Unlocking the power of music to boost your brain can be a game-changer in getting your most important work done in your day. This is important to recognize as stress, anxiety, and mental health issues cast a long shadow over productivity and job satisfaction. The cost of this silent suffering is measured in billions of dollars and countless lost opportunities, having a detrimental impact on the workplace.

Music is such a crucial part of our daily lives but isn’t often enough looked at as a solution to major issues such as stress and productivity. Yet its benefits are well-researched and clear.

By incorporating music into the work routine, employers can help reduce stress and improve cognitive performance, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction and ultimately reducing these costs. And for all you workers ready to boost your productivity, with some trial and error, you may discover that music is just the boost you need to level up.

Jamie Pabst is the Founder and CEO of Spiritune, an evidence-based therapeutic music app that supports emotional and cognitive health. Jamie is devoted to expanding the use of music to treat a broad range of mental health conditions and help everyone benefit from the therapeutic power of music. She is also a DJ and sees DJing as a real-time example of music’s ability to shift the energy and mood of an environment.

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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