Many people feel that listening to music while working or studying improves their mood and makes them more productive. On the flip side, some find music distracting and prefer silence to function to study or work.
Music and cognitive task performance
Rutgers University Professor of Psychology John R. Aiello and Baruch College’s Ph.D. Candidate in Industrial Organizational Psychology Manuel Gonzales, both psychologists and music enthusiasts, recently explained in a study that music can both be a help or a distraction while performing tasks. It just depends on the listener’s personality.
In their study titled “More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance,” the authors said that previous studies about the effects of music on cognitive tasks are conflicting. For their research, they studied the effects of music by considering the interactions between task-based, performer-based, and music-based characteristics. They gathered participants in their laboratory and instructed them to perform various tasks. The first was the easy task, which involved searching words that contain the letter “a” in a word list. The participants also completed a difficult task, which involved memorizing word pairs and then recalling what the pairs were for every word.
Task performer’s personality
The results showed that the effects of music depend on the task performer’s personality. Some participants have “preferences for external stimulation,” which means that they tend to give more attention or seek out things that are happening in their surroundings, like sounds or sights. Music may “suck up” more brainpower from individuals with strong preferences for external stimulation and a delicate balance has to be achieved when they are listening to music and performing tasks at the same time.
It was also found that any music hinders the performance of people with strong preferences for external stimulation if they are performing complex tasks.
Complex vs. simple music tracks
Some participants in the study completed the easy and difficult tasks in silence while others completed it upon hearing instrumental music that was either soft or loud and either complex or simple. They considered it complex music if it involves more instrumental tracks, has a faster tempo, and often changes in melodies. On the other hand, a simple music track includes one or two musical instruments and there is no frequent change of melody.
Limited mental resources
Participants who worked in silence or listened only to simple music showed the same performance in the easy tasks. However, those who listened to complex music performed best in the easy task. On the contrary, study participants performed worse in a more difficult task when they listened to music, regardless of the volume of the task or its complexity compared to those who worked with no music on. This suggests that “people have limited mental resources” from which tasks and music can draw. When these mental resources are underutilized, we may be bored and our minds begin to wander. Yet, we can likewise be distracted and overstimulated when the resources are overwhelmed, the authors highlighted.
Aiello and Gonzales said that demanding tasks typically require more brainpower and easy tasks require us to only use a few of our mental resources. Yet, because we may be less engaged when doing the easier tasks, there is a risk of becoming bored and drifting off. This is why listening to music provides the extra boost our mind needs to plow the monotony. In short, it is helpful to listen to music if the work is something you find repetitive and relatively straightforward but music is not helpful if the task requires full attention, such as writing.
Noise pollution: statistics
Pollution extends beyond water and air. The World Economic Forum has also mentioned that noise pollution that is damaging people’s hearing. The Worldwide Hearing Index shows that Guangzhou, China had the worst noise pollution. The second city with the worst noise pollution in the world is Delhi. It is followed by Cairo, Mumbai, Istanbul, and Beijing. On the other hand, the top quietest cities were all found in Europe, including Zurich, Vienna, Oslo, Munich, and Stockholm.
The World Economic Forum added that the typical sources of noise pollution are transport, including road, air, and rail traffic, construction and industry, televisions and radios blaring in bars, restaurants, and shops.
Noise pollution is also a contributor to hearing loss. The World Health Organization estimates that 360 million people in the world have disabling hearing loss and 32 million of these are kids. It added that 1.1 billion young adults and teenagers are at risk of developing hearing loss because of unsafe use of personal audio devices as well as exposure to damaging levels of sound in entertainment venues.
Music for productivity
Staffing firm Accountemps published in 2018 that more than eight in 10 professionals can listen to music while they are working and enjoy it. They say that they are more productive when they do it. Also, 71% or more than seven in 10 professionals said they are at least somewhat more productive when listening to music. When asked if their employer has a policy about employees listening to music at work, 44% said yes, it is allowed and there are no restrictions, 38% answered yes, it is allowed but there are restrictions, such as workers must wear headphones, 9% said no, it is not allowed, while 10% answered they don’t know.
When asked if they are more or less productive at work when music is playing, 39% said they are much more productive, 32% said somewhat more productive, 6% said somewhat less productive, 1% not productive at all, and 22% said music has no impact on their productivity. The genres that help their productivity are pop, rock, country, alternative, and classical.
Now that we know that some music may work best for you but not for other people, it sure is respectful to use earphones. Our little habits like listening to music while working may be making the lives of our co-workers or seatmates even harder because they can’t get the work done. If you are someone who prefers to work without the excessive noise factor, you may also consider noise-canceling headphones. Some companies are even willing to pay for these tools to help keep their employees happier and boost their productivity in the long term.