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Music and Focus

Hello, my name is Matthew. I am a student enrolled in a high school English class and have been assigned a research paper on the following topic: When completing homework as a student or repetitive tasks in the workplace, does music help people complete tasks more efficiently or does it hinder their ability to focus? One requirement of this assignment is an email interview. Would you be able to answer the following questions?

1. Does music increase the ability to focus on repetitive or boring tasks?

2. What are some other benefits of listening to music while studying or working?

3. Are there certain types of music that are more beneficial for studying than others?

4. Are there any negative effects of listening to music while studying or working?

5. If you had the option of studying or working with or without music, which would you choose and why?

Hi Matthew! I’ve answered your questions below; let me know if you need more detail on any of these answers.

1. Does music increase the ability to focus on repetitive or boring tasks?

There is some evidence that that’s the case — if a task is repetitive or boring, our brains lose interest in the task and look for other things to focus on; there’s where mind wandering or daydreaming comes from. If you’re listening to music, it gives your brain something else to pay attention to instead of the repetitive task, and that can actually help you stay more focused.

Interestingly, music generally improves simple task performance, but it can also depend on whether you like external stimulation or not. People who identify as extroverts do better with noise and volume than people who identify as introverts; an introvert might choose different music, or might choose not to listen to music at all, even during a repetitive or boring task. 
And if you tend not to listen to music much, you will do better on a task when there’s silence compared to music, and vice versa — if you do listen to music a lot, you’ll do better on a task when there IS music, so a lot of it is about your preferences and your usual routine.

2. What are some other benefits of listening to music while studying or working?

Listening to music you like (and that isn’t competing with your task) can place you in a state of mental arousal, which can help you work or process information. And some studies have shown that if you listen to music when you’re studying for a test, and listen to the same music when you’re taking a test, it might improve performance slightly (although other studies contradict this!). 

Uptempo music can help you feel more energetic, which might help you with studying or working. There used to be a national music subscription service for workplaces called Muzak, which was intended to be a curated music playlist that was designed to manipulate worker behavior. They would carefully create music playlists that were designed to ramp workers up in the morning to a productive period, and then wind down as the workers were preparing for lunch, and then do the same thing in the afternoon. Originally, Muzak was made entirely of instrumental re-recordings of popular songs or classical pieces, so they were able to control every aspect of each piece and each playlist, and there were no words to interfere with workers’ tasks. 

3. Are there certain types of music that are more beneficial for studying than others?

The best music to listen to is music that you find enjoyable, but not distracting. Music with lyrics is less beneficial if you’re reading or writing, or trying to work on a cognitively demanding task, because there’s a part of your brain that’s trying to process the lyrics and that process is competing with the work that you’re trying to do. Your brain is only able to hold and process so much information at a time, and providing too much input can be overwhelming, and can mean that information is lost or not retained.

There’s actually also some evidence that listening to jazz can have the same effect as music with lyrics, even though it tends to be instrumental; it’s possible that the improvisational solos are almost like a conversation the musician is having with the listener or with the other musicians, and that might have the same effect as lyrics.

You might also want to avoid music that has a lot of changes — many different instruments, changes in tempo or loudness, etc. — those can also be distracting. 

4. Are there any negative effects of listening to music while studying or working?

Depending on the music, it can pull your attention away from what you’re doing, and can be distracting. The more you get distracted, the less well you will learn. Everyone thinks they can do more than one thing at once, but research shows that we’re actually really bad at it. Every time our attention is diverted, there’s a biological cost, and the more we do it the more exhausting it is and the more it ultimately affects our productivity. 

If we’re doing something cognitively demanding or learning something new, it may be best to do so without music — a simple real-world example of this would be why people turn down the radio in the car when they’re looking for an address! They’ve gone from the repetitive task of driving to the more cognitively demanding task of looking for the address, and the music is now competing with that task. 

5. If you had the option of studying or working with or without music, which would you choose and why?

For me, it depends on how much I need to pay attention to what I’m doing! If it was something I was really working to understand, or needed to remember, I would either not listen to music, or listen to music that could stay in the background for me. But if it’s something I just need to get done, or don’t need to pay much attention to, or want energy for (like cleaning or something), I can listen to music. 

I did an interview a while back on a similar topic, so this may be helpful:
 https://forge.medium.com/the-perfect-productivity-playlist-according-to-brain-science-975fd9876575

I hope this helps you with your research paper!

-Dr. Van

Published in Ask Dr. Van

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