How music can make us more productive – and more likely to buy

I don’t know about you, but I can’t get through a day without music. Apart from having a keen interest in lots of genres, I find the right choice of music makes me more productive.

Because I’m having to plan ahead as I write this, I’m listening to some very familiar Schubert Lieder sung by the wonderful baritone Matthias Goerne. It’s soothing and helps me think.

If I’m proofreading or copy-editing, I tend to reach for something a bit more up-tempo, whether it’s a symphony, some dodgy Goth band from the 80s or even an album or two of Serge Gainsbourg’s.

The one thing I can’t do, though, is to listen to unfamiliar music as I work. If I like it, the temptation to stop writing and listen closely is too hard to resist.

It’s something that got me thinking about how businesses use music, whether to motivate their employees or to encourage customers to buy things. So I did a bit of research and was surprised by what I discovered. Below are the key things that I found out – I hope you find them useful.

1. Music makes repetitive work more efficient

One study found that workers engaged in repetitive tasks (such as assembly line workers) were more productive if there was background music in their work environment. However you need to choose the right music for the best effect – another study found that music in a major key helped people to become more productive.

2. Music can make learning more difficult

If music helps people perform repetitive tasks, evidence suggests that it can interfere with your ability to learn and store memories. Music with lots of variations particularly disrupts our learning skills, although even music that is relatively steady also has an effect. The lesson for businesses is that, if employees need to concentrate, learn and think flexibly, background music may hamper their performance. But beware – studies have also shown that ‘happy’ music can make people more creative, and you don’t want to lose that.

3. Music influences what we buy

We’ve long known that supermarkets, for one, are keen on playing background music. The simple reason for it is that it can encourage us to buy more from them.

However, when I started looking into how it can work, I was surprised by the variety of findings. As you’ll see, the music you choose can have significant effects – and it’s definitely worth experimenting with.

  • Music can encourage you to buy products from certain countries

    One study conducted in a wine store found that if customers were played French-style background music, sales of French wine would rise. If they then played German-style music, they would start selling more German wine. Customers largely said they were unaware of the music or the effect it had on what they bought

 

  • Slow music slows customers down – and gives them more time to buy 

    Back in the 1980s, a study in an American supermarket found that slow music encouraged shoppers to linger longer and buy more. Faster music saw customers leave quicker and with less. The store could increase profits simply by playing slower music.

 

  • Unfamiliar music encourages people to buy more 

    If you have a shop, don’t play chart-toppers and familiar oldies – reach for something a bit more obscure. One study found that playing familiar tracks meant people spent 8% less time shopping, and that could lead to fewer sales for you.

 

  • Match the genre to the products you sell 

    This is something that makes instinctive sense. If you play classical music in a wine shop, customers buy more than when you play hit tracks. Similarly, romantic music in a florists shifts more flowers than run-of-the mill pop tracks.

Should your business use music?

As you can see, whether you should provide music depends on the kind of business you have. If you have retail stores then, yes, it’s highly worthwhile to experiment with music – if you get the right genre, tempo and key then there’s a very good chance shoppers will stay longer and buy more (and even buy specific goods you particularly want to sell). On the other hand, if you have workers engaged in repetitive tasks, there’s a good chance music will boost their productivity.

That leaves businesses with employees who need to think, memorise and be creative. Music may have a positive or a negative effect on these people, but my instinct would be to give them a choice and try out different things – I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed writing this as much without playing wonderful Schubert recordings in the background.

Further reading: Do you play music at work? You may need two licences.

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