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work music
Work music. Some people love it – others, not so much. We are fans of listening to something while working here at Asian Efficiency, if only to drown out background noise and office chitchat.

The question then becomes what sort of music is best for working on different types of tasks. We personally like:

  • Instrumental/non-vocal music for tasks that require concentration.
  • Vocal or hard-hitting music for administrative or non-complex tasks (like uploading content into WordPress).

This a topic that comes up in our productivity community, The Dojo, all the time.

Quick Summary

Let’s skip the summary this time, and get right to the music.

The How

Our recommended music player is Spotify. It’s free/not-too-expensive, and most of what you want is available on there.

In lieu of that, you can go with iTunes or old-fashioned Amazon MP3s.

If you’re working in an office or other environment where it isn’t appropriate to have your speakers going, then some isolation earphones will help. We have used and like:

Shure SE535 earphones.
Shure SE535 earphones.

The Music

Movie Soundtracks

Soundtracks from motion pictures are awesome for working. They usually invoke the emotions of the film, and are typically non-interruptive. My friend Alex calls them “epic music”.

They are great for tasks requiring large amount of concentration – such as writing, coding, or any creative or verbal tasks. Here is some of what we like with a sample. If you don’t see the Youtube clips (in case your RSS client doesn’t support it), make sure to click here to see the whole post.

The Social Network

The Social Network (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon). Best soundtrack ever. This will change your working life.


Limitless (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).


Inception (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).

In the same genre, here’s a list of similar soundtracks that we like working to.

Video Game Music

Even if you’re not a gamer or even a casual video game player, video game music today is usually on-par with most motion picture soundtracks. As with all non-lyrical music, it is great for tasks requiring concentration or verbal thought.

Final Fantasy 8

Anything Final Fantasy (Spotify 1/Spotify 2/iTunes/Amazon).

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).

Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2

Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).

Here are some other similar soundtracks from video games that we like.

Classical Music

Classical music isn’t quite as fashionable nowadays as it used to be, but it’s still great for working to. You’ve probably heard of the Mozart Effect and how classical music can induce “short-term spatial-temporal reasoning enhancement” – basically, it improves your performance of certain tasks.

We like:

Other Non-Lyrical Music

Other noteworthy mentions for music without lyrics go to orchestral and instrumental covers, be they of movies, video games or pop songs. All are great for working on tasks that require a certain degree of concentration, or the formation of words.

Foreign Language Music

Music in a language other than English can be fun to listen to.

We’ve found that what it’s suitable for is largely dependent on your fluency in the language. If you don’t understand it that well, it can be used for tasks requiring concentration (your brain processes it as sound, but not as words). If you’re fluent, I would treat it the same as lyrical music (see below).

Lyrical Music

This includes any kind of music where people are singing words that can be interpreted (includes pop, rock and other genres).

As fun/enjoyable as it can be to listen to popular music, when it comes to work, it is best reserved for administrative or non-verbal tasks, be that balancing Excel spreadsheet numbers, or copy-pasting things online.

For fun, we’ve included some hip-hop and rap music that a lot of people we know seem to like.

Mo Money, Mo Problems

Mo Money, Mo Problems by The Notorious BIG (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).


Billionaire by Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).

Good Life

Good Life by Kanye West and T-Pain (Spotify/iTunes/Amazon).

Music here is largely up to individual taste, but here are some other starting points:

  • Topsify playlists on Spotify (UK/US).
  • A number of Spotify apps built around music discovery.

No Music

Sometimes, the best music is no music. There are just some tasks that can’t be done with sound in the background. In this case, isolation earphones still work quite well to block out noise and chatter, but you can also try a white noise generator like this one.

Our Playlists on Spotify

For those of you with access to Spotify, here are some of the playlists that Thanh and I have made public on our personal accounts (with a bonus from Dr Ngo):

Got any music that you enjoy working to? Let us know in the comments below!

Did you like this post? We have some of our best productivity hacks and tips in the Asian Efficiency Primer. Check it out here.
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Last Updated: November 27, 2020

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Last Updated: January 25, 2018

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. I like to listen kind of progressive and deep music, so my ‘get-things-done’ favorites with minimum vocals are: Nick Warren, Digweed, Cattaneo, Tomiie, Fleming

  2. I like howling along to music with lyrics, and I find Bowie’s The Lodger album completely indispensable when I’m entering data in my accounting software. I sort of treat it like a Pomodoro and can work really hard through at least 4 successive plays of it. Amazing for cranking through receipts, as is The Best of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. And for anything where I’m focussed on getting paid, Die Antwoord’s Hey Fatty Boom Boom really gets me in the mood :)

  3. Am always looking for good music. Great post!
    My favorite music when I had to type papers for school (in pre-computer days) was the instrumental — Silk Road l and ll by Kitaro.

    Off topic, when I want to relax after getting things done, I like to listen to Monsieur Periné – Latin Roots Live! Full Set https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWZX-273bHU and to most anything from London Grammar, including: London Grammar ‘Wicked Game’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slbfJtewzvE

  4. Great suggestions. I also use Pandora (extensively – I have fine tuned some stations for concentration) and FocusatWill.com

  5. To add some variety to the suggestions, Aphex Twin’s catalog has both great ambient music (both Selected Ambient Works albums) and hard-driving techno (Richard D. James Album, Classics) that are awesome for working to. Boards of Canada is great background music also. Can’t go wrong with soundtracks though.

    For more acoustic stuff, I’d suggest phenomenal guitarist Kaki King. Specifically her albums Everybody Loves You, Legs to Make Us Longer, and Glow are perfect instrumental background music.

  6. I love Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart too, but also favor Handel as well other Baroque composers. Handel (and Bach) are great examples of people who had it together for getting things done. Handel would simply get up and go right to work. He also was marvelous about reworking what he wrote into new compositions.

    One trick for me as to jumpstarting. Put something new on (or something long forgotten unplayed). Oldies music for me sometimes does it. It’s fun: some of it sounds dreadfully bad in light of perspective, and some of it’s really good like a vintage wine.

  7. What a great topic and post!!

    I created my own iTunes radio stations and my favorite ones during work are:

    Louie Vega
    Sweet Coffee

    and I love listening to country music also so my Keith Urban station plays almost daily while doing the financial part of the job :-)

    I do love silence while being in the middle of writing or reading too.
    The soundtracks I LOVE, same as classical music however this tends to carry me away. I get so much into the music that it becomes my focus. With the above stations I feel they support my flow through a steady and bouncy rhythm.

  8. I have found, when trying to focus, if I am playing music, I have to listen to instrumental music I am already familiar with. Because of this, I tend to listen to the same sound tracks all the time. Otherwise, my mind is trying to figure out where the music is going. I go back and forth of whether it is worth paying for Spotify or if i should just buy the audio tracks i listen to all the time. Fortunately, I am a graduate student and Spotify is offering students a premium subscription for just $4.99 for the first 12 months. It is definitely worth paying $5 to not have commercials and to be able to keep my favorites in offline mode.

    Some of my favorite Soundtracks, all found on Spotify:

    Band of Brothers

    The Piano Guys
    William Joseph – Piano
    Jim Brickman -Piano
    John Tesh
    Ray Lynch

    Video Games

  9. Hans Zimmer is the sh1t! I love all his OSTs. The climaxes in his songs are great for getting you pumped for getting stuff done.

    And you definitely can never go wrong with Mo Money Mo Problems.

    Through my research, I’ve found that non-vocal music is best when trying to get work done. But if you do want to listen to vocal music, it is best that they are between 50-80 bpm (beats per minute). Here’s the link that explains more about it:

  10. I’m hooked to listening to music when i’m working – I bit the bullet and subscribed to Google Play music unlimited…i’m never short of anything to listen to – that’s for sure!
    To follow on the soundtrack theme, I’ve recently discovered Ronnie Minder who has several ‘Cinema Episode’ albums which are great for working to.
    Another of my current favorites is Islands by Ludovico Einaudi – that creates a great mind space to work from, lots of hidden detail to listen to on earphones as well!

  11. I’d strongly suggest looking at trance music. DJ sets are available free on Soundcloud/Youtube. It’s good because they start slower at around 128bpm and often work up to 140bpm. More than any other type of music, it is “felt” rather than “heard” so provides less distraction in the background of your mind (even with lyrics). Something like Universal Religion Chapter 7 mixed by Armin Van Buuren is perfect. Live dj sets from artists like Armin, Andrew Rayel and Dash Berlin are available free online. There are many podcasts and weekly radio shows such as “A State of Trance” (actually the most listened to music radio show in the world by quite some margin) available free online too.

    If you listen to trance music, you’ll notice it is a lot more melodic than say house music. Vocals are much softer and it’s not really the type of music you typically “dance” to like in a club. This makes it idea for staying productive since, at least I find, it helps you concentrate.

  12. Great suggestions on the soundtracks. I’ll check out the ones you have listed.

    I have earlier stumbled onto the Kill Bill 2 soundtrack and I have found it very uplifting when I need to kick some ass.

    peace, Rick

  13. Classical all the way for productivity boosting, I’m a fan of Baroque (Vivaldi, Bach, …)
    But the earphones you suggest make me raise my eyebrows for two reasons:
    1) They’re earphones which mean a pain for me, even the highest quality Audio-Technicas or custom-made fit-to-your-ear ones. I just can’t stand those things in my ears.
    2) The one’s you suggest are of very low sound quality which means too much distortion that works on your nerves and thus decreases productivity.
    So got good isolating full-size cans instead to let you increase productivity in the office.
    I’m not going to givr you model numbers because my choice is way too expensive due to being an ausiophile. One tip could be the Denon AH-D-600 though, which is less than half of what I usually pay for my cheapest phones. For me that’s MP3 quality but for most people it will be a revelation.
    Never put Bose and sound-quality in the same sentence though, Bose is nothing but bass and effects.
    And B&W is awesome quality for speakers, just not for headphones (yet).

  14. Open Spotify or iTunes and type “Bahramji”.
    (My favorites are Sufiyan and Sufi Safir)

    It’s the best music (for me !) for working, along with Mozart, of course.
    But very different…

    1. I have two different streaming options set up. I also have it set to stream through my phone instead of the computer. Streaming can eat up a lot of bandwidth and can affect overall network performance, so I try to be a good corporate citizen.

      Anyway, I usually listen to jazz, classical, new age, or some variation thereof. Vocals of any kind tend to distract me.

  15. Hey, cool blog! I just found it looking for different perspectives on how to use OmniFocus with the GTD system. There’s definitely a lot of useful/insightful information here.

    Just wanted to contribute to this post with a few recommended soundtracks to work to:

    On Spotify:
    Max Payne 3 OST by HEALTH
    The Life Aquatic OST

    Not on Spotify:
    Lost in Translation
    Mysterious Skin
    Fight Club

    And here are a couple good background internet radio stations I enjoy:


    And here’s what I’m using for earbuds these days:


    Keep posting! I’ll be watching the RSS! :)

  16. Great post. Social Network, Inception, Batman Begins & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are all on my list. I would add Tron: Legacy to this list (awesome!) and any recording from E.S. Posthumus (epica music) although “Unearthed” is the recording from them that I normally turn to.

    For you Star Trek fans (I know you’re out there), the soundtrack for The Motion Picture is great to work to. For classical music fans, I find that Bach’s Brandenburg Conciertos are fantastic while I work.

    Could go on for hours (Jazz, Electronic)…great to see your reader’s feedback on their music tastes.

    1. Hey Chris thank you for sharing. I’d love to hear more from you on Jazz and Electronics. I’m getting more into those genres of music.

      And I agree, Tron: Legacy is awesome (like Geoff mentioned). Been working to that lately too.

  17. Thanks for sharing my list.

    What I like to do these days is I’ll have motivation music playing during my morning routine.

    When it’s time to begin work I always play the same song (Social network soundtrack). It’s my “trigger” that it’s game time.

    I’m actually digging house these days for work. It pumps me up without distracting me.

    1. That’s a great trick – I know you have a lot of these triggers and hacks where you condition yourself to do certain things or get yourself in a certain state of mind. Good stuff.

  18. I plan my work with silence or quiet classical music, the do the work with a directory full of techno by Orbital and Shpongle. The relatively fast beat seems to keep my brain on task. And like you said, no lyrics. I’d love to find more music that works as well for me as these two bands.

    Sometimes I listen to ska (I have a station on Pandora) when experimenting with new ideas, and the lyrics can be a problem. When evaluating options I like a French jazz station, TSF. I get about one word in 10 so it’s not distracting, but the organization is different from the way English is organized, which seems to encourage my brain to find new ways of arranging things.

    Great article, thanks.

    1. Hey Kurt I’m sure you’ve tried to “pandora” these bands. Another alternative is to look on Amazon and see what similar bands/albums are suggested. You can also do something similar in Spotify where it will find similar songs/artists.

      That’s an interesting concept on the foreign language. I seem to get not distracted at all when I listen to foreign music because I somehow just don’t process the lyrics.

    1. Yes, totally agree. Forgot about that one. I’ve added it now to my own playlist on Spotify :) Thanks Geoff!

    1. Hehe thanks for referencing this Jeroen! Let’s roll with the placebo effect on this (or are you going to tell us that’s invalid too!). Just kidding, always great to hear from you.

    1. Nice find – that’s a brilliant idea to have a radio station of just soundtracks. Thanks for sharing this.

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