Do you like to listen to music when you work? Pose this question at a party and you’ll probably get some polarizing responses. Some will say they love it, claiming that it improves their performance. Others will say they find it distracting and cannot work effectively with music playing in the background.
Music enthusiasts and psychologists wanted to understand when it helps and when it hurts to listen to music when performing tasks. Interestengly enough, researchers found that both of the above perspectives can be true, it just depends on what sort of work you’re doing.
Researchers have examined how music influences performance on a variety of tasks — from athletics to mathematics to reading. They’ve also looked at whether music effects performance through factors like the listener’s mood or their working memory capacity. However, much of this research focuses on specific context or specific types of tasks.
Researchers sought out a more developed and comprehensive framework that can be applied more broadly. So, in a recent study, participants were brought into a lab to perform a variety of tasks. They included an easy task — such as searching through work lists and crossing out words containing the letter “a” — and a more difficult task — memorizing work pairs and recalling the partner to each word.
Some participants completed all of the tasks in silence, while others completed the tasks with instrumental music that was either loud or soft, and either simple or complex. The latter meaning music with more instrumental tracks.
A simple music track might include one or two instruments, it’s melody might not change very frequently and it may have a slower tempo.
Complex music, however, might include a large variety of instruments, it might have frequently changing melodies and it may have a faster tempo.
Several key findings emerged from the study.
- It was found that participants who listened to simple music or no music performed about the same on the easy task. However, participants who listened to complex music performed best on the task.
- Conversely, participants performed worse on the more difficult task when they listened to any music, regardless of complexity or volume, compared to those who didn’t listen to any music.
What should we make of these findings? It suggested that people have limited mental resources from which both music and tasks control. We can become bored and our minds may wander when these resources are underutilized. But, we can also become overstimulated and distracted when these resources are overwhelmed.
Not surprisingly, we typically need to use fewer of our mental resources when we perform easy tasks, whereas demanding tasks require more brain power. However, because we might be less engaged during easier tasks, there’s a greater risk of drifting off. Music might give us the extra boost we need to plow through the monotony.
In short, it can actually be helpful to put on some music when you’re working, as long as you’re working on something you can find straightforward and repetitive.
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