This post is about music, and in particular, what type of music can help boost your productivity. For the purpose of maximising productivity, it’s helpful to have some background knowledge on the topic and I will do my best to provide that knowledge here.

Music has been a popular topic of research for decades now, and there are many studies on how effective different kinds of music are at improving concentration or otherwise increasing productivity. Many people swear by classical music as being particularly useful in helping them focus, but popular opinion rarely matches up with what scientific research shows. This article hopes to clear some things up by examining scientific research into the effects of listening to certain kinds of music on cognitive performance.

Music And Cognitive Performance

A lot of scientific research has been done involving music and cognitive performance. It was found that in general, listening to music had a positive effect on working memory and that people performed better on certain but not all cognitive tasks when listening to background music. However, the exact effects depend on the type of music being listened to.

There are two main variables which are often used for categorising types of music: Imagery content and tempo (slow vs. fast).

Imagery Content

Imagery content is generally viewed as referring to whether or not the lyrics of a song can be interpreted as describing concrete or abstract imagery. Some songs fit into both categories (such as “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton) and most tend to lean more towards one than the other. Lyrics which describe concrete imagery include straightforward descriptions of things such as “there’s a hole in my shoe,” while songs with abstract lyrics generally make use of metaphor or symbolism, for instance, “I’m walking on sunshine.”

It was found that listening to music with abstract lyrics generally improved performance on tasks which required working memory, as well as moderate tempo music (such as a string quartet). However, this effect is not universal; there may be better ways to improve cognitive performance depending on what you’re doing. For example, it was found that when participants performed a task requiring high attentional effort, such as a secondary task to a primary one , that low-imagery music and white noise was actually more effective.

The data on imagery content seems to show that using music with abstract lyrics can generally improve your cognitive performance. However, it is very important to note that in the latter study, participants were given much less time for their primary task when listening to music instead of no background sound at all. Future research may examine whether or not this effect replicates under different conditions; however, if you are working under extreme time constraints (as many students are ) then perhaps listening to low-imagery music would be better than nothing at all .


Many people prefer certain of types of music over others, based on their perception that some types are more energetic than others. However, the exact relationship between tempo and energy is not yet fully understood.

Two main variables are generally used for categorising tempos: Beats per minute (BPM) and song structure.

Beats Per Minute

BPM refers to how many beats each second a piece of music has. The average pop song tends to have a BPM somewhere around 120-140 , while classical works tend to be in the range of about 60 – 80 bpm . What most people don’t realise is that these numbers aren’t necessarily set in stone; it’s possible for songs to have any number of beats per minute. Some pieces may have more beats per second, while some may have fewer.

It was found that high-tempo music (such as a 130 BPM dance track) had no effect on cognitive performance in general. However, if the tempo is too fast (at about 180 bpm), then it’s possible for listeners to lose focus.

Song Structure

The song structure of an individual piece can change how it affects listener behaviour. For example, research has shown that when people listen to songs with a consistent structure such as pop and rap, they tend to perform better on certain tasks (such as responding to auditory stimuli) than random or unpredictable songs. The structure tends to make listeners feel like they’re ‘in the groove’ and will stay engaged in the music. However, if the song moves too suddenly between different sections, then it becomes harder for people to follow along.

It was found that when participants took part in an exercise requiring cognitive effort with no background sound at all, then listening to music with a very clear song structure was actually more effective than instrumental music which lacked structure. This shows that using some kind of regular rhythm can help you keep track of what’s going on in your brain.

Summary: What Music Should I Use?

Even though most studies show that abstract lyrics and fast tempos are most effective, it’s still possible to use other kinds of music for tasks which require working memory or attentional effort. If you’re working on a task that requires very little mental energy and allows you to take frequent breaks, then listening to low-imagery instrumental music with slower tempos can help keep your mind fresh. However, if you need a lot of brainpower or only have a short amount of time available, then using faster imaginary lyrics in your background music will allow you to get more done before moving onto the next task.