Do Productivity Playlists Actually Work?

The science behind listening to music to concentrate

Elisabeth Sherman
Published in
5 min readMay 22, 2019


Credit: Roberto Westbrook/Getty Images

LListening to music is a long-used productivity hack among creatives. Author Stephen King says he used to listen to Anthrax, Judas Priest, and Metallica while writing. Gabriel Marcía Márquez “wore out” Beatles records while working on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Charles Bukowski at least claimed he needed cigars, whiskey, and classical music to write 10 pages every day.

Millions of people similarly turn to music to focus. Playlists that claim to offer music to help people concentrate are growing in popularity. The YouTube channel Chillhop Music and a similar channel called ChilledCow have a combined 5.3 million subscribers. Chillhop’s 24-hour livestreams of playlists like “beats to study/relax to” attract many thousands of listeners at a time, while its Spotify playlists boast around 130,000 listeners every month. The channel’s “lo-fi hip-hop” playlists (lo-fi refers to low-fidelity music, which has an intentionally “unpolished or rough” sound) feature tracks with light music mixed with ambient noise.

But does listening to a highly curated playlist really help productivity?

For Maria A.G. Witek, a professor in the Department of Music at Birmingham University, there’s no easy answer. Witek recently co-authored a study on what type of music elicits a “pleasure response” among listeners. As she explains it, the effect of background music on concentration largely depends on a person’s personality and taste, but work-appropriate music tends to share a few general qualities.

The best kind of music to listen to while working should have no vocals, Witek says, because lyrics tend to be distracting. The music should also be slow, repetitive, and soft. Ambient, atmospheric sounds like rain, a waterfall, or rainforest noises block out distracting noises in the work environment — like passing cars or low-level chatter among colleagues — and can help refocus attention and concentration. “These characteristics will promote the right level of physiological and attentional arousal in listeners, acting as a stimulant without distracting from the task,” Witek says.

“High-arousal music often has more distinct events per unit of…