Everyday, in libraries, offices and cafes around the world, you can see people at work on their laptops with music pulsing out of their headphones. But is that music helping or hindering their productivity? There are thousands of online playlists purporting to help you focus. It’s clear that music can have a distinct effect on your mood, but does listening to music really aid in getting more done? Or is it, as another school of thought argues, an unnecessary distraction? Let’s take a look at the research.
Improving distracting environments
First, is music better than silence when you need to focus? There is no simple answer. Silence is a perfectly good study/work companion, however, silence is not always easy to find. Music can be particularly helpful in noisy (and therefore distracting) environments as it has been shown that music can filter out this noise and help you perform better at a variety of cognitive tasks. A 2013 study published in The Neuroscientist Journal illustrated that certain tasks, like working in a distracting environment, require the full participation of both your conscious and subconscious mind. The task is performed by our conscious mind, while our subconscious is busy at work processing all of the information around us – ready to bring a sudden noise or cue to our direct attention. Music can drown out all of the distracting environmental noises, like boisterous laughter, pen tapping or a coworker’s persistent cough and provide a level of familiarity and consistency to soothe the subconscious mind.
Another study conducted in 2010 at University College London showed that eliminating background distraction is especially important for introverts. How introverted or extroverted the test subjects were had a causal relationship with how well they performed on cognitive tests with varying levels of background noise. Extroverts were largely unaffected by noise, but the introverts had a much harder time maintaining concentration – their cognitive abilities were significantly impaired in distracting environments. So if you’re an introvert, music could be a big help.
The type of music matters
Regardless of your personality type, however, certain types of music are highly likely to be a distraction: what kind of music we listen to when working is a crucial factor in whether it helps or hinders focus.
A 2002 University of London study showed that a test group who were played calming music showed a marked improvement in their problem solving and memory skills, compared to those performing the same tasks in silence. On the other hand, music described as “arousing, aggressive and unpleasant” impaired cognitive abilities, especially memory. The authors of the study also noted that “the effects of music on task performance are mediated by arousal and mood rather than affecting cognition directly”.
Therefore, if you decide to play music while trying to focus, be sure to play something that will direct your mood towards a calmer, more zen-like state. Anything else is likely to undermine your productivity. Melancholic music can sap motivation; music we find very busy can make us stressed. Music that reminds you of summer can stimulate the impulse to go grab a towel and hit the beach.
That said, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone experiences music differently. For you, heavy metal might be just the ticket. Maybe. A 2011 cross disciplinary study conducted at Taiwan’s Fu Jen University and Wan Fang Hospital contends that the most important factor in finding appropriate music to listen to when working is your personal preference. The study found that people are able to concentrate more to music that they like, while music that they did not like impaired their ability to stay focused. However, if participants strongly liked the music, it also proved distracting. Put on something you like, but not too much.
Music to work to
Music with a distinct melody is likely to be particularly distracting. Melody, especially of the catchy pop variety, draws the attention of the conscious mind. While a nice hook is great on the dance floor, it’s probably not going to help you finish that report. For this reason, research has shown that it might be best to play ambient music where melodies are too slow and irregular to pick up on. Classical or jazz music are also effective choices as they rarely follow regular melodic patterns.
Following a similar logic, try not to include many (if any) songs with lyrics in your hypothetical productivity playlist. Our brain is hardwired to pick out human speech due to something called “the cocktail party effect”. Over millions of years of evolution, our brains have even evolved to naturally boost sounds within the consonant range of the human voice. Lyric songs are likely to be distracting for this reason.
An odd but effective recommendation – video game music. This is music that has been designed to focus the listener on the game while adding to the atmosphere and so it often fulfils most or all of the aforementioned criteria.
Lastly of course, silence, if it can be found, is no bad thing. But when silence is scarce – put on a selection of calm songs that you like, but not too much, possibly encompassing the genres of ambient, classical, jazz and video game music!
Let us know in the comments if you find that music helps you focus.