The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article this week on how wearing headphones and playing music impact focus at work. I have heard numerous times the argument that playing music in the background actually improves focus. The article sheds some light on whether this really is the case based on scientific research.
Long and short of it is, no, research offers little support for the idea that listening to music improves concentration. Quite the opposite: “ The neuroscientists say listening to music in the office with lyrics while trying to read or write can distract employees by overtaxing verbal-processing regions of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center must work harder to force itself not to process any strong verbal stimuli, such as catchy lyrics, that compete with the work you’re attempting. The more cognitive work required to screen out unwanted input, the fewer cognitive resources remain for the task at hand. ‘Attention takes mental effort, and we can get mentally tired’, says Dr. Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.”
There are several recent studies that support this argument. In on study of 102 college students in Taiwan, it was found that “listening to music with lyrics was linked to lower scores on tests of concentration”. Another study published in 2010 in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning showed that “listening to hip-hop music was linked to a significant reduction in reading-test scores, based on a study of 133 adults”. A third study of 89 students ages 19 to 28, led by researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, found that workers who either loved or hated music being played where they were working scored lowest on tests of attention, compared with workers who didn’t have strong feelings about the music or who worked in rooms without music”.
A dated but more comprehensive study that controls for music types and personality types (extrovert/introvert) showed that silence brings out the best performance and familiar music (as it is more arousing than unfamiliar music) brings out the worst and that both personality types perform better in silence than with music. The study also showed no difference in performance in any of the conditions between introverts and extroverts.
There is some counter evidence too: Another paper reports two studies exploring the effects of music, perceived to be calming and relaxing, on performance in arithmetic and on a memory task in children aged 10-12. The calming music led to better performance on both tasks when compared with a no-music condition. Music perceived as arousing, aggressive and unpleasant disrupted performance on the memory task and led to a lower level of reported altruistic behaviour by the children. This suggests that the effects of music on task performance are mediated by arousal and mood rather than affecting cognition directly.
While the case is still far from being settled, my interim conclusion is:
1- We are generally better off working in silence.
2- If we must listen to music, it’s best to avoid 1) music we absolutely love – the type that arouses our feelings and makes us sing, hum, or whistle along, 2) music we absolutely hate, and 3) music with lyrics. In other words, find something calm, preferably instrumental, and definitely you are not very familiar with and keep the volume down.
You can read the whole article here. I have attempted to highlight a few interesting points. Would love to hear your thoughts on background music vs. concentration correlation.