Hearing Music Is Not Listening – But Musicking Is The Best


Many people try to use listening music to help them work better, to rise a ‘sound wall’ protecting from the outside world, or to boost creativity. For me it doesn’t make sense. In a similar way as it would be to offer the great 19’s century painter Vincent Van Gogh to paint his room orange and turn on a yellow blinking lightbulb, as an inspiration to paint his famous Sunflowers.

Without the real-life experience and focus he would hardly accomplish his masterwork.

I believe that the research supporting benefits of listening music while working is not revealing the whole truth. After all, listeners pay for such ‘special’ music. So they support the music industry, which is very happy for yet another revenue stream.

There is not that much research focused on benefits of active music playing or musicking. Obviously. Because there are way more music listeners out there, then music makers. And unlike listening, musicking requires effort nonetheless.

Those “advertised” benefits of listening could be just a part of a bigger picture. What if the listening to music while working is one of those less negative instances of multitasking (a topic I wrote more about here)?

While multitasking, music is filling up those moments when the working mind takes a break to recharge. Or when needs to regroup for another activity. Instead of fighting hundreds of work distractions, now there is only one to continually, and seemingly successfully, cope with – the familiar sound of music.

This is not about a repetitive manual work, or a gym workout. Music there helps for sure.

Any more demanding mental or creative work requires ongoing focus. And at the same time also small breaks. Like when a painter walks a couple steps backward to get a different perspective of her work. To find other possibilities how to continue and to assess the part already accomplished.

But if there is music playing in the background, those exact moments are filled by the brain switching between working/thinking/creating and listening. Not much space left for a break or for a creative breakthrough.

So music is not for the real ‘listening’ at work. This confirms a popular advice to listen to a familiar music, without words, so that not to get distracted by unknown or surprising tunes. Music serves no other purpose than a brief distraction from boredom and maybe, in a unique situation, a kind of inspiration.

Is it just that music is an art form abstract enough not to intrude in the working process as much as other art forms would do? Can you imagine someone gazing at architectural masterpieces while coding a software?

Also as music represents an art in time, that makes it seemingly suitable for the purpose of a working accompaniment.

I am not writing this to refuse completely playing music while working. But I see a clear difference between listening and hearing. You prefer hearing music, because it is a more familiar noise. You listen suitable music AND then work, because it helps to improve your mood, to keep you motivated and focused.

Similar to breathing-in a fresh air and you exercise, because you have a boost in oxygen.

But when you smell and sniff different aromas of your favourite types of coffee or wine, that is not the same as breathing. And I am sure that drinking an excellent wine while eating your favourite spicy steak or chili is not the best way how to enjoy either.

So what to listen to when working?

The Atlantic magazine claims ‘The Best Music for Productivity? Silence’. In the article the author Olga Khazan writes ‘Studies show that for most types of cognitively demanding tasks, anything but quiet hurts performance’. She also quotes popular neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin. He recommends that those who still want to listen to music to improve their work performance to “Take a break every few hours and listen to music for 15 minutes”.

Music carries way more potential than that. Especially if you approach it as a music maker – if you start musicking.

So, instead of painting flowers in an orange blinking room – go out, experience the nature, smell, touch, and paint your own sunflowers. Instead of using music listening as crutches for your ability to focus, think and be creative – grab a music instrument, start musicking or singing. Use active music making to learn how to concentrate better, how to stay focused, how to collaborate, how to listen, and how to be creative. And how to do it mindfully.

All this knowledge and abilities will help you to be more productive and successful not only at work.

If you want to learn more about mindful music making and musicking, you can sign up for the Musicably newsletter.


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