Technical Communication, Music, and Productivity

Dec 22, 2015

At this time of year, it can be extremely difficult to concentrate. You’re sitting at your computer, resplendent in your Christmas jumper, trying to make sense of some source documentation. Your mind begins to wander. You start to think about Christmas presents, you wonder who your Secret Santa is, and that Christmas music is driving you to distraction. To top it all, it’s the end of the year and there’s a deadline looming.

A technical writer needs to be focused at all times and not just at Christmas. After all, we need to produce high-quality, concise, accurate, and precise content that is user-friendly. So, how do we remain focused and productive?

A recent study found that listening to music while working can increase accuracy and speed. It also showed that specific genres of music are suited to different tasks, for example, pop music is great when you’re working to a deadline.

Survey on Music at Work

We wanted to know what our technical writers listen to at work and whether music helped or hindered them in their tasks. We devised a survey to ask our colleagues about their specific music listening patterns, both at work and during their leisure hours. We wanted to know if being at work influenced their music choices. Also, we wanted to see whether there was any correlation between the more generic music and productivity research available and the listening habits of our own writers.

We found that the majority listen to music regularly when they are at work; there were only a handful who didn’t. A few people also listen to radio or podcasts. However, others found that talk-based audio can be very distracting:

I’d either tune out of the entire podcast or tune out of work – no happy medium!

Some of those who don’t listen to music, listen to white noise in the office to drown out background noise.

Does music help your productivity?

Listening to music can aid productivity. Photo by Luke Chesser (

Music Choice and Task Type

Our writers are a diverse bunch and the type of music they listen to varies extensively. We have rockers and ravers, soul boys and riot grrrls. In fact, you might conclude that Kurt Vonnegut was correct when he said:

Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician.

Most of those surveyed agreed that the type of music they listened to depended on the task they were working on. One writer described how unobtrusive music enhances the rhythms of working on different types of task:
If I have music on while I work, it’s usually something mellow and easy-going, regardless of the task – something that I can easily tune out as needed. It creates a comfortable cocoon of low-level noise in my workspace, and I can let my attention drift to it and away as I work.

This brings to mind Brian Eno’s genre-defining comment that:
Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

Overall, instrumental music was the preferred choice of our writers. This was because many of them found lyrics distracting, especially when doing intellectually demanding tasks such as writing or reading. (Is it actually possible to write when listening to rap music and not want to make everything rhyme?)

Music and Mood

It seems that a lot of our writers also listen to whatever suits their mood. As one respondent said:

The task doesn’t dictate the music I listen to. It is my mood that decides.

This correlates with some recent studies that show a link between music, mood, and productivity. For example, academic research investigating the psychology of music shows that music listening improves a person’s mood (in the short-term at least) and this has a positive effect on the quality of work and productivity.

Whether they are listening to music or not, you can be assured that our writers are immersed in the details of content development. Sure, some of the rockers might be tapping their feet, but they won’t be sitting drumming their fingers on the desk waiting for the day to end.

Do you use music to boost productivity?

What are you listening to right now? Photo by Corey Blaz (

Tune In

Although your listening habits are a very personal thing, we think most people would find these general tips useful:

  • Listen to music when it suits you to do so. When it starts to bother you, stop!
  • Listen to something familiar. New music may take too much of your attention.
  • Avoid music that has strong emotional significance to you while you are working
  • Listen to instrumental music. Ambient music can be ideal when you need to concentrate.
  • Plan what you are going to listen to in advance. There is so much music online – YouTube, Mixcloud, Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music – that the actual search for music can be distracting.
  • If music is not your thing, try some nature sounds or a white noise generator.

We know you’ve read this far out of curiosity about what it is we actually listen to. Since you insist, here’s our ambient playlist to get you started.

Now that we’ve divulged, it’s your turn. Do you listen to music while you work? Do you, like us, stick on your headphones, scroll through your playlists, and find a song that snaps you out of the mind fugue and kick-starts your temporal lobe? We’d love to hear any comments, suggestions, or playlists you might have.

P.S. After the success of my last playlist, I have been asked to compile a fresh one: More Music to Work By. The playlist is a collection of ambient tracks that I have been listening to as I gallop towards deadlines. It is impossible to work in complete silence, but ambient music is the next best thing. I hope you find this playlist helpful and productive. Happy listening.

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