Listen To Music While Working: Is It A Good Idea?

Written By John Sonmez

Today I received a question from a reader asking me about listening to music while working.

But… Is it a good idea? Or is it a bad idea? Does it affect your productivity?

In this video, I talk about different types of music and how each one of them interacts with your attention and the quality of the work you do.


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Full transcript:

John:               Hey, John Sonmez from I’ve gotten different forms of this question. I got this question from Phillip about listening to music while working. He says, “Hi John, I’m following you for almost 9 months now.” This is kind of an older email actually. I’ll kind of skip to the part where he asked the question here. He says, “What do you think about listening to music while working? Do you listen to music when coding? Joel Spolsky asserts that programmers are limited mentally when they listen to music. It blocks deep thought. How would you comment on it? Here’s a video with Joel Spolsky’s statement.” He’s got a link to Quora on there and then, “Thank you again. I can’t wait for new content. Phillip.”

I don’t listen to music in general really, not anymore. It’s kind of funny. I listen to audio books all the time or podcasts so I’m never really listening to music but occasionally when I’m coding or working I will listen to classical music. I mostly agree with Joel Spolsky on this and I’ll tell you why.

Well, first of all, if you’re trying to like listen—there’s different levels of things that require different levels of concentration and cognitive ability. If you’re listening to an audio book, that’s probably the highest one, right, because it’s direct content that’s condensed content and there’s not a lot of other brain tasks you could do while listening to an audio book, you’ll just zone out on the audio book, right? It’s even hard sometimes to lift weights while listening to an audio book especially when you get on 3 times the speed like I do. I can zone out. That’s kind of like the highest level of cognition, right?

Then there comes podcast. It’s just a conversation so you don’t have to be quite as tuned in. there’s a lot of—it’s not condensed content so you can probably do more stuff. I still wouldn’t recommend trying to answer emails or work your code, you’re going to zone out, you’re not going to follow the conversation.

Then there come music that has lyrics especially complicated lyrics. That still requires—I mean you’re humming along or you’re singing along with it. You might be able to do some work while doing that but I would say that you could play a video game or you could sort things or do some kind of mindless type of work that requires a little bit of brain power while doing that and still do a decent job.

Then comes music that’s instrument or classical music and with that there’s a small amount of cognitive load there to listen to. I find that it could actually enhance you’re ability because it might calm your mood. There’s an equal amount of calming and it can help you build focus. You can let that relegate to the background and you’re not missing anything, so you don’t have to worry about it. It’s less likely to interrupt you.

I think what you have to do is kind of match up the music, if you will, or what you’re listening to, the auditory stimuli to the type of work that you’re doing. In fact there’s—I’ve talked about this a little bit even with walking on a treadmill while working. You can find some of my blog posts on walking on a treadmill while working. I think I’ve got a guide to that.

Anyway, there are certain activities that you can do. Some of them—if you like you can listen to an audio book and walk on a treadmill. That’s not a problem. You can probably read a Kindle but you’ll find if you read more complicated texts that it’s actually harder to walk. You might start tripping. You might be able to answer email if it’s brainless stuff, but trying to code while walking on a treadmill becomes more difficult especially if you’re trying to solve a difficult problem.

Long story short it basically comes down to this, you don’t want to do things that’s raw on your cognitive ability at the same time because you will only be able to focus on one thing. For example, a lot of people I know will listen—watch TV and they’ll be coding at the same time. What they’re actually doing is they’re just switching back and forth. Something that would take them 1 hour ends up taking them 4 hours. Maybe they have a better time doing it and same thing might go if you’re listening to music but you have to realize that it’s going to hurt your productivity unless it’s probably classical music. Even then I’m not quite sure. I’m not totally sold on the classical music. I’ve tried it.

I find that when I’m writing, when I’m actually writing—when I was writing my Soft Skills book listening to classical music helped but while I’m coding I think it probably would hurt me. It might be different for someone else but anyway, I can’t really—I’m sure there are some people that think they perform well listening to death metal but maybe they totally tune it out. Maybe that’s what happens and they’re just listening to the rhythm. For me I know and for other people that I’ve talked to it actually hurts productivity. You can test it out. If you don’t believe me, try it. Listen to some music while you’re coding and do without it or try—try different experiments. You should always be experimenting on yourself to see what works for you because it might be different for you than to me—than for me.

Anyway, good question. I think a lot of people wonder about this and yeah, so that’s my opinion on it. If you’ve got a question for me, email me at and if you like this video subscribe to the channel. Take care.