Among the many side effects of physical offices closing during the coronavirus crisis is the massive increase in people working from home.
As of this summer, a whopping 42 percent of everyone in the workforce is telecommuting full time. And both for those who have been working in a home office for a long time and those for whom this is a brand new experience, making your home office a place for productivity is a challenge.
With all the distractions — both physical and emotional — of working from your living room or home office, what better way to make your space your own than creating your own soundtrack to work to. But what’s the best music for working from home? Why is listening to music beneficial to your WFH life, and what genres best promote continued quality work?
The benefits of music while working
Why should you listen to music while working from home? Because music can help you be more productive, more creative or just happier. A silent room can be just as distracting as an over-stimulated environment. It can also drown out the sounds of your partner working in the other room, a cranky baby, a needy puppy, noisy neighbors or the sounds of the city.
Creates positive emotions
A happy worker is a productive worker. For many people, working from home is a new phenomenon and can cause worry about being distanced from co-workers and friends and falling into a poor mood which will affect the work.
It should be no surprise that the right music can make you happy. We all have that one song or one band that puts us in a good mood. And studies predictably confirm that happy employees are more productive and more efficient. In fact, more research shows that people who listen to music are happier than those who don’t. And who doesn’t want to be happy at work, even at home?
Brings the upbeat vibes
Music can also bounce out that 2:30 feeling, those times during the workday where you need a pick me up. In a normal world, that may have been a trip over to the office kitchen for a snack and/or gossip and a few moments away from your desk.
But when working from home, that midday lull can be alleviated with some upbeat tunes to kickstart yourself. Happy, uplifting music can also assuage the boredom of a particularly mundane or repetitive task and turn that project you were dreading into something much more appealing.
Drowns out distracting noises
The most practical use of music for working from home is lessening distractions. Back in the office, you were surrounded by people holding too-loud conversations, clacking away on keyboards or drowning you in the sounds of cold and flu season. Tossing on the earbuds took you away to a different place to concentrate on your tasks at hand.
At home, it’s the same thing, just different distractions. From barking dogs to kids in Zoom school to your neighbors running the vacuum way too often, a solid work-from-home playlist will keep you focused and on task.
Improves memory and cognition
It’s not just productivity that music heightens, but your memory and actual work performance. Sure, a great work-from-home playlist will get you excited and moving on that new project, but music can actually make your work better.
Recent studies have shown that listening to background music enhances episodic memory and improves your cognitive performance. Just imagine what the right background music can do to the quality of your work with better memory and optimizing your executive functions.
The best music for working from home
There are a lot of choices of music to listen to. Spotify alone defines nearly 2,500 different genres. But not every one of them is the perfect music for working from home for every person. You may be into melodic metalcore or Canadian indie or LGBT hip hop, but some genres promote productivity, creativity and concentration more than others.
Here are some of the best musical genres for working from home and keeping your day up and running between your morning coffee and your end of the day wrap up. And for each, we’ve provided some great work from home playlists to get you started.
Talk about staying power. Classical music dates back 500 years but remains popular today. Upwards of 35 percent of adults listen to classical, making it the fourth-most-popular genre — and the perfect background noise for your work from home. Classical music is many things at once: uplifting, moody, aural, familiar, mellow, inspiring — sometimes all within the confines of one piece or movement. And it’s a great WFH soundtrack.
The “Mozart Effect” theory says classical music makes you smarter, that it’s good for test-taking, studying and working, particularly creative work. Other studies have shown that classical music can boost your mood, increase productivity and even improve the quality of your work.
But classical music is a very broad genre spanning some 50 decades, so where to begin? One survey found that the Baroque period — think Bach, Vivaldi and Handel — fostered an increase in positive disposition and concentration.
Classical work-from-home playlists
2. Epic and anthemic music
Soaring. Moving. Epic. Anthemic music is a style that crosses genres from the biggest arena rock bands and ’90s modern rockers to country storytellers and jock jams. It’s music that gets you on your feet, powerful celebratory songs with memorable choruses that project triumph.
It’s music that makes you feel like you can take on the world and accomplish anything. Even finishing that spreadsheet or submitting that HR project right on time.
Anthemic or epic music can inspire grandiosity and motivate you to get through that tough assignment or meet that goal. It’s sports anthems like “We Will Rock You” or “Takin’ Care of Business.” Soaring contemporary classical pieces like “Fanfare For The Common Man.” Inspiring heart-pumpers like “The Rising” or “Born This Way.” Or genre-defining hip-hop like “Fight The Power” and “It Was a Good Day.”
Like athletes getting off the bus, focused and Beats headphones on, anthemic music makes you feel uplifted, empowered and ready for game time. Is it music you should spend all day listening to while you work? Probably not. But if you’re feeling tired, beaten or simply unmotivated, high-powered anthems might just be the answer to sitting up straight and showing your boss who is boss.
Epic and anthemic work-from-home playlists
3. Ambient music
Ambient music may have a reputation as just elevator music or random soundscapes, but it’s so much more. It could be a colorful house or techno playlist. World music or indie shoegaze. Synths or space rock. But no matter what the subgenre, ambient music makes for a distraction-free backdrop to your workday.
The pioneer of ambient music and the iconic artist-producer Brian Eno, who created the ambient music masterwork “Music for Airports,” described the genre as, “able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular, as ignorable as it is interesting.” Music that won’t steal your attention yet fills the silence while you’re working may be the genre for you.
There are as many exciting artists as there are classifications of ambient music. Sample the spacey sounds of Enya and Enigma, electronica of Aphex Twin, old school prog Pink Floyd and Moody Blues, ambient pop of Talk Talk or Nick Cave, downtempo chillwave of Kygo or Toro y Moi or atmospheric dream pop of Dizzy and The XX.
Ambient work-from-home playlists
4. Feel-good music
Ever walked into a dentist’s office and the local hot adult contemporary station is playing over the intercom? Of course. Because feel-good music makes you… feel good. No one loves the dentist’s office, but maybe you’ll feel a little better if Hall & Oates or Britney Spears is playing. Songs that bring a smile to your face and make you move your feet a little (but not too much).
Pop music designed to make you feel happy even while you’re toiling away at work is perfect for working from home. It’s possible your old office even had this pumping through the hallways or in the kitchen. Because feel-good pop can make the day go by a little faster.
As you’re rushing towards deadlines or unburying yourself from an email avalanche – or even if the boss has just been on your tail all day — sometimes you need to do a little walking on sunshine to bring your motivation back. None of this is meant to be deep and thought-provoking. Feel good music is supposed to be like a snack break or a candy bar, to stimulate the happiness centers of your brain and release that hit of dopamine to get you onto the next task.
But take care to avoid songs with narrative lyrics or story songs, as music that tells a linear story has been shown to be distracting to cognitive work. So, blast the Pharrell or Barenaked Ladies, but stay away from the Don McLean, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin.
Feel-good work-from-home playlists
5. Chill vibes music
Not every work situation calls for music that makes you move. Reading heavy text or concentrating on a difficult task might take something to ease the nerves and keep you relaxed. Some chill music — folk rock, smooth country or just good old classic acoustic rock — might be just what you need certain times during the day.
Acoustic or muted guitar, smooth vocals, light instrumentation and an uncomplicated beat is just the soundtrack for a stressful job or project. Cue up indie-folk jammers like Hozier, Dan Mangan, Phoebe Bridgers or Vance Joy, chill crooners including Ed Sheeran, Ingrid Michaelson or John Mayer, acoustic old-schoolers such as James Taylor, Cat Stevens or Rickie Lee Jones or just a great album of acoustic hits like Arkells’ “Campfire Chords” or something moody like “Folklore” from Taylor Swift.
But be wary of playlists heavy with your favorite songs. A study has shown listening to tracks with lyrics you know by heart, or “familiar vocal music,” can decrease your performance through distraction while you fight the urge to sing along, even in your head. Sounds like the perfect time to catch up on some new music you aren’t familiar with.
Chill vibes work-from-home playlists
6. Video game soundtracks
If you’re over a certain age, this category is going to make very little sense. But one of the best choices for music for working at home are video game songs. We’re not talking about 8-bit Atari beebop or Nintendo chiptunes. This is thematic, pointed and often soaring music specifically designed to enhance the video game experience.
Video game music is a marketing tool, designed to enhance your gaming experience. If you’re winding your way through a fantasy landscape or dodging enemy fire as you infiltrate enemy hordes, video game music can help you focus, keep your energy levels up or even just keep you playing. The same can be done with those soundtracks while you work alone in the living room.
These are compositions to encourage you to reach for that next level, whether it be in your first-person shooter, your epic fantasy adventure or your latest work project. It can help you avoid obstacles and collaborate with your friends, in the game or in the work huddle. This is the strategic music you’ll find in games like Bastion, SimCity, Thumper, Doom, Final Fantasy, Journey and Legend of Zelda.
Video game work-from-home playlists
7. Instrumental music
A study by two researchers at Middle Tennessee State University found students who listened to instrumental music scored higher on tests than those that listened to lyrical music. Logically, it makes sense. For some, a song with lyrics is akin to someone standing behind you talking while you’re working. In fact, an NIH paper showed that music needs to be lyric-free for it to promote productivity.
The great thing about instrumental music is it can literally be any music devoid of lyrics or words. Instrumentals exist in every single genre (well, maybe not a cappella or barbershop). No matter what music you enjoy, you can type away and crunch those numbers with soothing or inspiring music-only tracks bereft of those pesky words. Country, indie, classical, power ballads, skiffle, trip-hop — every genre has perfect instrumental music to fit your needs.
Instrumental work-from-home playlists
8. Nature and real-world sounds
Sometimes the soundtrack to your day doesn’t even have to be music. Filling your living room or home office with the sounds of nature can put you in a variety of moods, from motivated and amped to relaxed and attentive. The choices are endless and only limited by your tastes. Choose from classics like waterfalls, an afternoon thunderstorm, rustling leaves, a crashing surf, morning birds chirping or a crackling campfire.
The most useful noises don’t even have to be of the natural variety. Try something out of the box like rain hitting the roof of a car, an oscillating fan, a clacking train or a running washing machine. Are you really missing the office? Why not fill the silence with the actual background sounds of an office.
Is this still too disruptive? Help block out distractions with the neutral sounds of white noise. Just ask your smart speaker to play some.
Nature work-from-home playlists
Picking the right music for you
No one genre or music type is going to be exactly what you need every minute of the day. Take a cue from a music therapy concept called the Iso Principle. This technique calls for starting with music that mirrors your current mood and gradually ramping up to songs that match the mood you want to be in.
Start the morning with something slow that can ease you into your day without forcing you to be productive. Then, transition into some power jams that will increase your performance and get you pumped for finishing that big project or the day’s task.
Looking for a sweet spot to feed your day? One research report concluded that music clocking in at about 121 beats per minute was optimal for productivity. Think songs like “December” by Collective Soul, The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” or “My People” from Missy Elliott.
But no matter what genre you decide on, the only goal is to find what’s best for you. Studies show that while listening to music does aid in completing tasks quicker and improving cognitive thinking, how much it actually helps you concentrate depends on how much you actually like the music being played. So, find your jam, and get it done.