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Innovation Culture Bulletin: In search of sound

Work & Lifestyle

We propose the best science-backed working sounds for different types of tasks, and suggest some office radio ideas that will prep the brain for innovative thinking.

“I was working on a painting and it was a figure in a garden. I heard a wind and saw the figure move.” – David Lynch

The majority of research on the relationship between sound and work argues that a good level of ambient noise can increase creativity and productivity. A paper published by Oxford University Press explains that ambient noise is an important environmental variable, and can enhance the performance of creative tasks. Pleasing, low-level noise — the modern equivalent of a human’s natural sensory habitat — keeps the brain mildly engaged at a subconscious level, without distracting higher function cognitive processing.

But it is hard to get the perfect balance, and most of us are familiar with the feeling of drifting away with a melody instead of being absorbed with the task at hand. It is true that sounds that are even a little too loud, too high-toned, or too complicated can actually impair our concentration. In today’s open plan offices, we are faced with even more disruptions — loud Skype calls, slammed doors, or a jarring song from the office radio.

That is because hearing — a fluid sensory function — is intimately linked to the rest of our human responses, from cognitive thinking to creativity. The answer to making sound help rather than hinder, is to pay close attention to each day’s individual tasks, and match your changing moods and mental states with sounds that will optimize, instead of impede your productivity.

The key thing to understand is that our cognitive capacity is limited — even those who are “good at multitasking” cannot efficiently process two conflicting streams of text at the same time. But silence makes any small noise extremely disruptive, and can be uncomfortable. Optimum working sounds are achieved when you have found the right balance of engagement in both the lower and higher cognitive levels.

Experiment with the tips from our Innovation Bulletin Five this week, and see which one works best for you. Once you have worked out a good pattern, the Springwise-featured Moodbox could learn your moods and automatically play the most suitable music.

1. Music you like makes mundane tasks easier. When the task at hand is clearly defined, repetitive, and almost second nature, listening to music you enjoy can improve your efficiency. This has less to do with the music itself, but more to do with the good mood the music puts you in, and the subsequent benefit it has to your productivity. Pleasing melodies encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, and as a result, a dry task can be perceived as very enjoyable.

2. Hardest-to-tune out noises. As expected, high pitches and low tones — sounds out of our regular decibel range — are generally more disruptive. (Think screeching ring tones, or the aggressive rumble of the coffee machine.) Scientists have also found that intermittent speech is amongst one of the most disruptive noises to concentration. When a colleague next to you is on a phone call, your brain can’t help but try to work out what the person on the other end is saying. This should not be mistaken for a general hum of office chatter, as it is the processing of intelligible words that can be the most distracting. In a similar vein, music with lyrics demands the same region of the brain that, say, edits copy, so the conflicting needs can be counterproductive.

Usually, the solutions to these problems are surprisingly simple. Investing in a quieter coffee machine, or making sure it’s not in the main workspace could be a small act with immeasurable benefits. Equally, if you need to make a call, consider moving away to an area where your conversation will be less distracting to those around you.

3. White/red/brown noise, Gameboy soundtracks, and Baroque music. A Fast Company writer listens to the same SimCity 2000 soundtrack every time he writes an article. Much research has suggested that video game soundtracks can indeed be beneficial to productivity, as they were designed to foster “winning” and help gamers get to the next level. But what if glitchy, electronic music is not pleasing to your ears? It turns out classical Baroque music has the perfect beats per minute (60) to boost the brain to its optimum working state. For those that find any melody or lyric distracting, this website generates white, brown and red noises that could provide relief for those in loud working spaces. (White noise from the International Space Station could be another option for workspace explorers.)

4. Familiar sounds and Pavlovian conditioning. Music that you’re familiar with is the best for focusing — new music can often be surprising and jerk your concentration away from the task. What’s more, just like Pavlov’s original sound-based conditioning experiments, listening to the same soundtrack or playlist every time you work on an important monthly report could be like giving your brain a pep-talk about the work that’s about to come.

5. Focus with moderate levels and moderate volumes. If you’re listening to sounds at a loud volume in order to block out distracting noises, chances are they aren’t really helping with your productivity that much. Higher levels of noise reduce information processing, which impairs productivity. If you can, save the most difficult tasks for early mornings and late nights, or find a quiet corner in your building to mull it over. Moreover, when choosing music to work to, avoid the extra high synths and super low basses, as they can be distracting. Brian Eno’s ambient albums have been praised for their effectiveness in providing a calm working mood; this Reddit thread, or these Monday Morning mixtapes may also give you some inspiration.

Getting everyone in the office to agree to an office radio can be a challenge, so perhaps soundscapes or unobtrusive ambient noise can provide the answer.

Bonus: Sounds to create and think outside the box to. Listening to unfamiliar music or sounds before ideation or problem solving could provide a boost of creativity, by jolting your mind into a state of discovery and new ways of thinking. At the same time, putting on nature sounds, the BBC shipping forecast, or ASMR — which the Internet generation claims can lull their brain into calmness — could transport you into a relaxing state, which provides the perfect platform for finding a link between remote ideas or optimum free association.

Our Spotify playlist this month has a variety of ambient tracks from diverse artists, which will hopefully give you some sound inspiration for whatever task you have planned ahead.