Is Background Music a Boost or a Bummer?

It depends.

Posted May 27, 2013

Music icons

Is music multitasking?

“Are you multitasking if you’re listening to background music?” This is one of the first questions I usually get after making my conquer cyberoverload presentations.  As research consistently shows, multitasking reduces the efficiency, accuracy, and quality of what you do.  So whether or not music introduces a distracting second task is an important question.

It’s not an easy question to answer because the more you look at the research, the more complicated the answer becomes. I’ve reviewed dozens of studies on the issue, and taken together they show that music can have three important effects: It can distract your attention from whatever else you’re doing; it can affect your arousal level; and it can change your mood or affective state.  The bottom line is, music can help or hinder your work depending on the nature of the task you’re trying to perform and the nature of the music.  So here are some general conclusions:

1. Music can improve productivity on repetitive tasks. Workers on assembly lines or quality-control operators need to stay focused on their work even though what they’re doing is not necessarily inherently interesting, and attention typically fades over time. Upbeat music has been shown to improve efficiency and accuracy in these situations. Interestingly, this works best if the music is not played constantly, but if it’s introduced periodically at intervals when normal attention is likely to wane.  In these situations, music can make the task seem less boring, and it can also increase arousal and alertness. Studies supporting this conclusion have recommended that music without lyrics be used; or that if music with words is used, the words should either be familiar or boring! (1)

2.  Music can give you a motivational jump-start before you start on both cognitive tasks and those requiring creativityUp-tempo, pleasing music can boost your mood and be motivational.  For example, in a cross-cultural study, Canadian undergraduates performed better on an IQ test after listening to an upbeat selection by Mozart than after a slow, minor-key piece by Albinoni. And Japanese children spent longer producing drawings and drew more creatively after listening to familiar children’s songs that they liked than after listening to unfamiliar classical music.

Mood signs

Choose music to create the mood you need to work in

3.  Relaxing, repetitive, low-information-load, background music can enhance performance on some cognitive tasks.  One study used a highly repetitive synthesizer piece with a narrow tonal range and compared it to a “dissonant, rhythmically varied and highly dynamic piece” (and to silence) as background while high school students were reading. Reading scores were significantly higher in the low-information-load music condition than in the other conditions (3).  A similar study looked at the effect of Koan music, which consists of free-flowing, harmonious sounds, often used for meditation. Students performed significantly better on a series of intelligence-test items when Koan music was playing in the background than in silence (4). In both studies, the background music seems not to have interfered with processing of the information in the task, and may have aided relaxation and reduced stress.

Listening to music through earphones

Popular music can really be distracting

4.  Typical popular music usually interferes with complex tasks and reading comprehension.  Particularly when the music has lyrics, most popular music introduces a multitasking situation that interferes with reading comprehension and information processing. Several studies have shown this (e.g., 5, 6, 7).  One study did show, however, that playing quiet classical music during a recorded lecture improved learning from the lecture, perhaps because it made the learning situation more palatable or enjoyable or helped people retain focus without introducing distraction (8).

This area is a work-in-progress.  There’s still much more we need to know. But based on studies to date, here’s the advice:

1. If you’re doing a repetitive task requiring focus but not much cognitive processing, you can use upbeat music to boost your energy and attentiveness.

2. Even if your task necessitates cognitive processing or creativity, you can use motivational music beforehand and during breaks.

3. With high-information-processing tasks, monotonous, zen-like background music may sometimes promote better performance on cognitive tasks.

4. For problem-solving or highly cognitive, complex tasks, avoid typical popular music with lyrics as it will likely interfere with the quality of your work.  Try rewarding yourself during breaks instead.

There are undoubtedly many individual differences in how people respond to music when they work.  If you prefer silence and it works well for you, there’s no need to change your habits. But if you find silence unnerving or unsettling, try music that adds the least in terms of cognitive load, but that boosts arousal or reduces tension (whichever you need) or simply makes you feel good.

(1) Fox, J. G., & Embry, E. D. (1972) Music—An aid to productivity. Applied Ergonomics, 3 (4), 202-205.      

(2) Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35 (1), 5-19.

(3) Kiger, D. (1989). Effects of music information load on a reading comprehension task. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 69, 531-534.

(4) Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85, 1435-1438.

(5) Anderson, S. A., & Fuller, G. B. (2010). Effect of music on reading comprehension of junior high school students. School Psychology Quarterly, 25 (3), 178-187.

(6) Johansson, R., Homqvist, K., Mossberg, F., & Lindgren, M. (2011). Eye movements and reading comprehension while listening to preferred and non-preferred study music. Psychology of Music, 40 (3), 339-356.

(7) Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93.

(8) Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., & Scelles, N. (2012). Music during lectures: Will students learn better? Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 258-262.

About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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