Sometimes science only confirms what you already know. For example, stress negatively impacts performance, resulting in poorer quality of work, decreased leadership effectiveness, and increased error rates.

Or listening to music. Research confirms what surgeons already know: When you already possess considerable skill, listening to music can help you relax and improve your focus. Research also confirms something else we all know: Listening to up-tempo music can increase your pace and endurance without making you feel more tired. 

But sometimes, science points out what we don't know.

Like situations where listening to music--no matter how much you believe you can't function without it--can negatively affect your performance.

Learning Something New? Turn It Off

When you need to develop or improve a skill, to synthesize information, to solve a problem, to rehearse a presentation or sales demo or learn anything new...research published in 2014 in PsyCh Journal shows that listening to music causes your performance to suffer.

Why? When certain tasks are performed in the presence of background ("irrelevant") sound--music, conversation, construction, etc.--the performance of those tasks automatically suffers.

While music can make work or studying less boring, it also makes the time you spend a lot less effective. Your brain still processes the music, even if you think it's in the background. That's especially true when music includes lyrics

And that's even more true if you sing along: A 2012 study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention shows that singing along increases your mental workload, automatically decreasing the brainpower you can apply to whatever you're trying to learn--or analyze, assess, or determine.

And then there's this: Listening to new music causes your body to automatically release a burst of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger that naturally draws some amount of attention away from whatever you're trying to learn or do.

So when should you listen to music at work? Here's a handy guide.

When to Listen to Music at Work

  • When you need to perform a relatively repetitive task, especially if you're already good at that task. (After all, if a brain surgeon can listen to Metallica while operating....)
  • When your workspace is already noisy. No matter how good you think you are at tuning out your co-workers--or, if you're working from home, your family--still, in essence, random noise forces your brain to multitask. A University of California study found that multitasking impedes the brain's ability to absorb information. (Another thing we didn't need research to confirm.)
  • When you need to relieve anxiety and stress. A study presented this year at the American College of Cardiology conference shows that people who listen to "soothing music" for 30 minutes a day averaged anxiety scores one-third lower than those who do not. (Just make sure you aren't trying to learn while also trying to relieve a little stress.)

When Not to Listen to Music at Work

  • When you need learn, analyze, or decide.
  • When the music you're listening to is new to you, or, on the flip side...
  • When you know the music so well you'll be tempted to sing along.

The Bottom Line

The next time you're tempted to listen to music, think about the work you'll be doing.

If it's a relatively mindless task, or one you can do so well that it's basically automatic, then by all means crank it up.

But if you need to learn, or evaluate, or make decisions, or apply all your mental effort to whatever is in front of you...then make sure your environment is as quiet as possible.

While that might "sound" really boring, your effectiveness and performance will definitely benefit.

Because when you're working on something important, what you accomplish--and how efficiently and effectively you accomplish it--is what matters most.