The (Musical) Key to Productivity

Survey shows most U.S. workers feel more efficient when listening to music

Jennifer Chamberlain listens to Pandora playlists like “Relaxation Radio” at work. Photo by Jonathan Black.
Jennifer Chamberlain listens to Pandora playlists like “Relaxation Radio” at work. Photo by Jonathan Black.

Hilary Bouton-Verville’s fingers hover over a computer keyboard as she works on a report about influenza research. To concentrate, she inserts earbuds, and the music of Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach spill out. 

“Music drowns out distractions. It helps me focus,” said Bouton-Verville, associate director of Duke Human Vaccine Institute Program Management. 

Music helps a majority of us feel more efficient, according to a 2018 survey by Accountemps, a subsidiary of the human resources firm Robert Half. The study found that 71 percent of U.S. employees feel more productive when listening to music. People who listen to music at work also feel a boost in happiness, according to a Spotify survey. 

Anthony M. Kelley, an associate professor of the practice of music at Duke, said music leads to improved productivity and positive feelings because it has qualities that are linked to a more relaxed mental state. 

Jennifer Chamberlain treats herself to music with lyrics on Fridays. Photo by Jonathan Black.Kelley said soothing instrumental music is good for engaging in work that requires critical thinking because the tone isn’t distracting. Energetic and upbeat music is better for repetitive tasks that don’t take a lot of brain power.

“Music is a gateway to get you into a sense of relaxation,” he said. “You think clearer when you’re not anxious.” 

Jennifer Chamberlain, a financial analyst for the Duke University School of Nursing, listens to Pandora playlists such as “Relaxation Radio,” “Tranquil Music Radio” and “Musical Spa Radio.” The spa playlist features songs with instrumental chords playing over rain, wind and chirping birds.

“Music transports me away from my worries,” she said. “It brings me calm, relaxation and balance. I just feel better when I have something playing.” 

At work on Fridays, Chamberlain listens to music with lyrics. She alternates between favorites by Duran Duran and new tracks by BTS, the Korean pop band she started listening to after attending the group’s concert with her 12-year-old daughter.

She listens with headphones but also plays music on low volume in her office.

“I always laugh when people walk in and say how nice and calm it seems,” Chamberlain said. “I can tell a difference when I don’t have music on.”  

Listen to a Working@Duke curated Spotify playlist:

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