MUSIC AND THE BRAIN: Music in the Workplace—a Boon or Bane?

By Hrayr Attarian, MD

Several years ago, a colleague of mine complained about the music that was being played in our clinic’s staff room, even though this was an area isolated from where patient care took place. To be fair, his original objection was primarily about the type of music (the admin folks had been playing a blues station and he heard a few bars of an innuendo-laden Howlin’ Wolf song). Nevertheless, he also stated that any music is distracting and affects productivity. I thought of this incident a few months ago when I came across an intriguing article “Working to the beat: A self-regulatory framework linking music characteristics to job performance.”(1). The authors, Kathleen R. Keeler, PhD, of Ohio State University and Jose Cortina, PhD, of Virginia Commonwealth University summarized all available research on the impact of the type of music on productivity in an exhaustive yet engaging and readable review.

Jose Cortina, PhD

In their paper, Keeler and Cortina quote the work of a number of researchers that demonstrated music’s positive impacts such as facilitation of learning as well as better regulation of emotion.(2) They also outline other research that showcased the negative impact of music such as distraction, increase in the number of errors, heightened tension, distress, and even aggressiveness.(3) Since none of these studies were conducted specifically looking at music in the workplace, Keeler and Cortina dug further into the scientific archives. Some of the initial data on music in the workplace they discovered was primarily half a century old or older and was very inconclusive.(4,5) In addition, very few took into consideration the subject’s choice in music.(1)

Keeler and Cortina analyzed and interpreted the large volume of information they had collected on music, cognition, and productivity by breaking it down into a number of elements. Musically speaking, they looked at the key in which individual tunes were composed, their complexity, tempo, volume, and their dynamic variation. For outcome measures they looked at executive function, attention, inhibitory control, and working memory. They then related individual musical elements to discrete aspects of productivity.(1)

A musical piece, when written using Western scales, is in one of 12 keys. This is usually either a major or a minor key. Detailed musicological explanation of the nature of a key is beyond the scope of this article. For more information the interested reader may check out Holly Day’s and Michael Pilhofer’s excellent Music Theory for Dummies. Musical complexity refers to the level of intricacy of a song or melody. This may be determined by the number of repetitive phrases, the distance between notes and the speed at which they are played, the use of notes that are not in the key of the song, as well as the type of rhythmic patterns. Dynamic variation refers to the changes in volume and how suddenly or gradually they occur.(6)

Executive function refers to a series of brain processes that are predominantly generated by the frontal lobes. [Figure 1]

Figure 1: The Frontal Lobe. Source: Shutterstock

These include planning, reasoning and problem-solving, as well as attention.(7) Working memory is immediate and high-speed memory that has low capacity and only holds and processes information required for the task at hand. It is essential for reasoning and decision-making.(8) Inhibitory control refers to the ability to focus on relevant stimuli and suppress any stimulus that is irrelevant to the task at hand.(9)

Keeler and Cortina used examples of pop and rock songs and Western classical compositions to illustrate their point and created a website where these different samples can be heard. Below is a summary of their interpretation of the published research.

1. Musical key and complexity affect the type of emotion music produces. Pieces in minor keys and those with higher complexity are usually associated with negative emotions. Tunes in a major key and those that are simpler with no unexpected changes are associated with positive emotions. For instance, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is in a minor key while John Lennon’s “Imagine” is in a major key.

2. Music in a major key and of low complexity triggers positive emotions, broadens attention, and stimulates working memory—but lessens inhibitory control, therefore impairing the ability to eliminate distractions. Works in a minor key with high complexity, on the other hand, trigger negative emotions, strengthen inhibitory control, narrow attention, and help with analytical thinking—but decrease working memory.

3. Faster tempos and higher volume increase arousal. Higher arousal also narrows attention and increases the elimination of distractions. Lower arousal does the opposite.

4. Music at fast tempos that is louder narrows attention, impairs working memory, and strengthens inhibitory control. Slower, softer pieces broaden attention, increase working memory, and decrease inhibitory control.

5. Listening to simpler pieces in a major key and slow tempo at low volume—like Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby”—broadens attention and working memory, creating an ideal situation for idea generation. While the opposite—minor key, faster tempo, louder and more complex pieces, such as the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata— narrows attention, lessens working memory, and eliminates distractions, making decision-making easier in ambiguous situations.

6. Combining various musical characteristics can in turn selectively broaden attention, enhance working memory, and improve inhibitory control. For instance, a piece like Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major has high tempo and low complexity. If played loudly, it can result in this combination of cognitive changes that in turn are necessary for performing complex tasks. Another example is the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This one is in a minor key with high complexity, yet at a slow tempo. If played softly it can have the same positive impact on complex task performance.

7. Music in minor key, fast tempo, with higher complexity, and played at high volume helps with tasks that require vigilance and quality control.

8. Routine task performance does not rely much on either working memory or inhibitory control, therefore, listening to any type of music during these can be beneficial.

9. The listener’s individual temperament also plays a role in the impact of music on work performance. Using the approach-avoidance paradigm,(10) the authors concluded that those with more affinity to positive emotions and vigilance for reward— thus approach temperament—had more enhancement in their executive functions with low-complexity and major-key music. Meanwhile, those with more sensitivity and vigilance for negative emotions—thus avoidance temperament—experienced improvement in executive functions while listening to high-complexity pieces in a minor key.

10. Presence of lyrics weakens the impact of music on working memory and inhibitory control.

11. Lastly, the workplace environment also had an impact on the way listening to music affects productivity. When there are a lot of distractors, low-complexity and major-key tunes do not broaden attention or improve working memory as much as in less distracting milieus. By the same token, where there aren’t many distractions the impact of minor-key and high-complexity pieces on inhibitory control is not as pronounced.

Kathleen R. Keeler, PhD

Since the music they used in their study was only in Western classical, pop, and rock idioms, I asked Keeler her opinion on listening to jazz pieces at work. She emailed the following response:

Regarding your question about jazz, improvisation and task performance, I haven’t come across much research on the topic; most studies focus on what influences the actual process of improvisation. But, I think could be beneficial for simple, routine tasks and possibly tasks that require quality control. Jazz improvisation tends to be more complex and this in turn should enhance inhibitory control due to the narrowing of attention.


1. Keeler K, Cortina J. Working to the Beat. Acad Manage Rev. 2018;43. In Press.

2. Randall WM, Rickard NS, Vella-Brodrick DA. Emotional outcomes of regulation strategies used during personal music listening: A mobile experience sampling study. Musicae Scientiae. 2014;18:275–291.

3. Greitemeyer T. Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on prosocial thoughts, affect, and behavior. J Exp Soc Psychol 2009;45:186–190.

4. Gladstones WH. Some effects of commercial background music on data preparation operators. Occup Psychol. 1969;43:213–222.

5. Oldham GR, Cummings A, Mischel L J, Schmidtke JM, Zhou J. Listen while you work? Quasi-experimental relations between personal-stereo headset use and employee work responses. J Appl Psychol. 1995;80:547.

6. Day H, Pilhofer M. Music Theory for Dummies. 4th ed. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley; 2019.

7. Anderson V, Jacobs R, Anderson P, ed. Executive functions and the frontal lobe: A lifespan perspective. New York: Psychology Press; 2008. Accessed August 8, 2019.

8. Miyake A, Shah P. Models of Working Memory: Mechanisms of Active Maintenance and Executive Control. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1999.

9. Diamond A. Executive Functions. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013;64:135–168. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750.

10. Elliot AJ, Thrash T. Approach-Avoidance Motivation in Personality: Approach and Avoidance Temperaments and Goals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;82(5):804–18. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.82.5.804.