There has been some fierce discussion about this subject in blogosphere and on Programmers.SE. It all started with Joel Spolsky's claim:

[...] putting on headphones to drown out the ambient noise has been shown to reduce the quality of work that programmers produce

I've found following retort (not well referenced though):

  • RAND data says exactly the opposite: that programmers who choose to listen to music see a 30% productivity boost. Of course, that’s probably because RAND is taking numbers from tens of thousands of industrial programmers who already have a reasonable place to work, whereas you’re looking at a dozen or so goons in a basement burning a million dollars of VC on ping pong tables and being confused why they can’t focus.
  • Maybe you should learn that correlation does not imply causation, and that the productivity drops you see might be a result of the disasterously low quality work environment that you attempt to explain away as acceptable.

I feel both opinons are quite single-sided, but what does science say on the subject?

  • That 'retort' is simply a rant. There is no point to debunking it - it's just some guy sounding off about how he disagrees with Joel about everything, especially how to run a small company. Note that the guy doesn't even run a company. He's "just some software engineer". Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 16:28
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    @DJ: still,even if that particular one is wrong, I'd like references to studies that support one of the claims.
    – vartec
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 16:57
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    @DJC - The source of the claim is irrelevant. It's still a valid claim and I'm sure plenty of people would be interested in whether it is (dis)proved scientifically.
    – user5341
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 19:16
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    In my experience, in environments where you need headphones to drown out the distractions, you're already working at less than your potential. I doubt anyone has ever set up a controlled experiment where the same person was set to do a similarly difficult task in otherwise identical environments, first with and later without having music playing through headphones.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 5:40
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    @jw: yes, RAND is authorative and definitively if such a RAND study indeed exists, that would be great answer. But a random guy saying "RAND study says" without providing any link or reference, is not authorative.
    – vartec
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 8:23

1 Answer 1


The answer to this is unfortunately a "we don't know".

This thesis "Music listening in UK offices" which goes into fantastic detail and well worth the read on this subject.

They conducted three studies and the conclusion was that music meant different things to different people and people had different reasons for listening to the music, but those people felt it important to have.

Across all three studies, the findings present a varied picture. Music could be distracting while working, but could also help to manage other distractions in the office environment. Music could be relaxing when employees chose to listen, but annoying when imposed. Even though music was subordinate to work activities, it was nevertheless important in many different situations, for many different reasons.

This study is quite thorough and detailed and I think the study itself and the conclusion is typical of the results you are likely to find: music means different things to different people and people relate to it in different ways - good luck in trying to put something so subjective down on paper!

There is this study from 2005, which was only on approx. 50 software developers:

Results indicated that state positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed. Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working.

There is also this study on 70 I.S students:

One-way ANOVA results indicated a statistically significant difference in anxiety level between control and music groups with the greatest difference following the initial music listening. Repeated measures analysis revealed the least amount of anxiety level across time for the periodic group.

What is also evident from the bits and pieces around there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a massive increase or decrease in productivity, however music does provide a level of personal comfort and enjoyment. So the benefit isn't weighable by the employer, but there is a perceived level of satisfaction by the employee.

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