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Does Listening to Music While Working Make You Less Productive?

Music can lift your mood and give you a relaxed focus, but it decreases your performance on cognitively demanding tasks

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In a previous column about the stress of working in an “open” office, I suggested that the popular practice of listening to music with earbuds or headphones not only cuts down on background noise but may also give employees a sense of control over their aural environment. But does having a constant soundtrack to your day also distract you from the task at hand? That depends on the task. Research shows that under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse — sometimes dangerously so.

(MORE: Workplace Woes: The “Open Office” Is a Hotbed of Stress)

Absorbing and remembering new information is best done with the music off, suggests a 2010 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Adults aged 18 to 30 were asked to recall a series of sounds presented in a particular order. Participants’ performance suffered when music was played while they carried out the task as compared to when they completed the task in a quiet environment. Nick Perham, the British researcher who conducted the study, notes that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks.

That finding is key to understanding another condition under which music can improve performance: when a well-practiced expert needs to achieve the relaxed focus necessary to execute a job he’s done many times before. A number of studies have found, for example, that surgeons often listen to music in the operating room and that they work more effectively when they do. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons carrying out a task in the laboratory worked more accurately when music that they liked was playing. (Music that they didn’t like was second best, and no music was least helpful of all.)

(MORE: Remember More Without Trying)

The doctors listening to their preferred music were also the most relaxed, as revealed by measurements of their nervous system activity. Still, surgeons might want to ask others in the operating room for their opinions on playing music: one survey of anaesthetists found that about a quarter felt that music “reduced their vigilance and impaired their communication with other staff,” and about half felt that music was distracting when they were dealing with a problem with the anesthesia. (And who would want to be the patient in that situation?)

(MORE: How to Get—And Keep—Someone’s Attention)

Research suggests that singing along might even heighten the distraction. A study presented earlier this month at the International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, reported that singing along with music in a car may slow drivers’ responses to potential hazards. Christina Rudin-Brown, a Canadian researcher who studies the role of “human factors” in traffic snafus, asked the participants in her experiment to learn the lyrics to “I’m a Believer,” as performed by the band Smash Mouth, and “Imagine,” as performed by John Lennon. Singing these songs while operating a simulated car increased drivers’ mental workload, leading them to scan their visual field less often and to focus instead on the road right in front of them.

Other iPod rules drawn from the research: Classical or instrumental music enhances mental performance more than music with lyrics. Music can make rote or routine tasks (think folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. But when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.

MORE: Can You Learn Everything “On the Job”?

31 comments
bigred
bigred

I put on instrumental music when I'm writing, it's relaxing and I get more done.  Same with driving--I love driving but not listening to road noise, so I always have CDs of fave music to listen to. 

JudyLynnPearce
JudyLynnPearce

Just attended a webinar yesterday on Brain Fitness in the Workplace and they talked about this very study and impact of music on performance. The webinar excellent (and free) - if you are interested it was http://blueoceanbrain.com



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Betsabe Ocasio
Betsabe Ocasio

I think that the research lacks more indepth since people have different tastes and likes,different personalities, and everyday life can affect their current state of mind. In my university studies, I liked to work on research and English papers with music using headphones. I did great with As in my courses, and even some professors accused me once of plagiarism until I proved them wrong, that I had written everything, on the other hand, when studying certain subjects, like math, I would like music on, but would not use headphones, but if I took practice tests I did better with headphones. Everytime I used different type of music, sometimes my favorinte music was annoying. Humans are very complex and I feel that maybe the test can be done using a different approach. It would be hard to generalized the findings for all the human race.

David Seidman
David Seidman

Does a cubical-farm-mate with a booming voice who might be on the phone all day and does not avail himself of privacy rooms make me less productive?

OrganizeYourLifeAndMore
OrganizeYourLifeAndMore

My opinion - it depends on what type of work you are doing.  If you are working with your hands and don't need to concentrate much, music can be a great motivator to help you get the job done.  If the work you are doing requires your full concentration, a quiet setting can often work out better.   As a writer and a professional organizer I prefer music playing when I am organizing and a quiet atmosphere when I am writing. 

OrganizeYourLifeAndMore
OrganizeYourLifeAndMore

My opinion - it depends on what type of work you are doing.  If you are working with your hands and don't need to concentrate much, music can be a great motivator to help you get the job done.  If the work you are doing requires your full concentration, a quiet setting can often work out better.   As a writer and a professional organizer I prefer 

music playing when I am organizing and a quiet atmosphere when I am writing.

ChiefBoardOp
ChiefBoardOp

well do you get distracted while driving with the radio on ?   its mutli-tasking  now if its a phone  you mind is occupied with having to respond  but that varies with individuals  but  music often  is an inspiration to artistic side of the brain and inspires a different way of looking at logical problems.  It may slow down  mechanical  side of work but may also encourage a higher quality answer to the same problem  (better mousetrap same mouse)  And music provides a pacemaker to doing repetitive work such as assembly line work  where you sew the same section of a garment to each one as it passes your station.    So it may provide advantages as well as disadvantages based on the individuals role in the business.   Thus  no real conclusion  overall on what the truth of the matter is.

Sean Taylor
Sean Taylor

It's a moot point for the majority of people. Most workplaces won't allow you to listen to music.

dougbr
dougbr

Sort of makes sense. Like right now I'm at work, and I can't think of anything other than how much I would like every member of the band Train to die as nasty and horrible a death as possible. Really interferes with my ability to concentrate on work.

breindrein
breindrein

I work in the graphic design industry and lately I got Simfy, which is basically like Spotify.  Playing music in the background does make me lose concentration, especially the louder the music. More environmental lounge type music is better than the standard rock/pop music arrangement. The 'i can't hear myself think' part is very true for me, which leads me to an off topic thought. If you reason with yourself in your home language, would it be possible that the vocabulary and expressive ability of a specific language allow the speaker of one language be able to reason clearer than a person that thinks in another language? The quality of languages might differ in specific areas.

ducky00
ducky00

I'm a programmer and listening to certain music/tv shows/movies often helps me to focus and gets me into 'tunnel vision' mode for problem solving.   It has to be something very familiar and fairly low volume.  Eventually I start to tune it out and don't notice when it stops.   Sometimes it's to provide a 'controlled distraction' which distracts from other distractions around me; at other times, when there are no distractions, it's still necessary to force my brain into gear.   My productivity would suffer without it.

I get the best results with upbeat pop music that has a strong metronome-like beat.  I like relaxing classical music but it doesn't usually have the desired effect in this context, it seems to work against what my brain is trying to do.  

I'm a bit baffled by this article.  Not that long ago I read another study - New Scientist? can't remember - which talked about research into the way music beat impacts on breathing, and the study results suggested that the latter might be a key factor for getting in 'the zone' for a particular task.  

Gil Friend
Gil Friend

Umm, wouldn't it depend on the kind of music? (Does for me.)

bzelbub
bzelbub

i'ld rather hear polkas than a steady diet of rap that the others seem to like

Erick-99
Erick-99

I am not criticizing this writer or the essay. But as per always these "researchers" (as described in the essay) have too much time on their hands and they need to make a few bucks.  This is a simple, common sense thing.  If you work in construction (or similar jobs), especially the using your hands and shovels type of labor, music is a Godsend.  My employees (5 of them) all do it.  There is no problem, obviously.  On the other hand this seems like a very bad idea for a  brain surgeon.  There was a funded "study" to figure this out?

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

No it ha been proved that you are 

more productive when the   music  is on I thank you Firozali A   Mulla 

Margot
Margot

Hmm, a study that suggests that memorizing sounds is difficult when there's music playing in the background? This doesn't seem like a good study to include, as 1. most people don't memorize sounds for a living, so concluding that "music is distracting while working" is a stretch and 2. memorizing sounds is probably the hardest thing to do when music is in the background.

As for the anesthesiologists, could you report what percentage thought that music helped their performance?

Zitherbell
Zitherbell

I'm stuck in a cubicle.  Headphones help me block out noisy office machines, constant chatter and the construction going on both inside and outside of the building.  Music helps me concentrate, helps the time fly by and makes my cubicle experience tolerable.  I don't work in a research lab, I work in a real office, so I find the "research" to be beyond stupid.

Trajan Saldana
Trajan Saldana

we needed a study to tell us music is a distraction

DavidCameron
DavidCameron

 Paula replied I'm blown away that a student can profit $5986 in four weeks on the network. did you look at this (Click on menu Home)

Lia
Lia

Interesting but doesn't segment the population. A common tactic for those with diagnosed attention issues (ADD or anxiety based) is to listen to music while working as to prevent other types of more invasive distractions (such as browsing the web, talking to colleagues etc). It'd be more helpful to distinguish how groups function instead of across the board. 

LShreve
LShreve

If I'm doing a task such as mindless entry into an excel spreadsheet, I need to put on instrumental music while working to busy my mind.  I think it all depends on the type of work that you are doing.  I think song lyrics make a huge difference.

Betsabe Ocasio
Betsabe Ocasio

this type of research is done in order to help those that fund the research find ways to be more productive and efficient, wouldn't you want to know if it would be better to put music while your workers did their jobs knowing that they are going to be more productive, or follow the rules better or behave in a better way to do their job? Have you heard of music torment techniques used in Guantanamo Bay? Those are the ones that have too much time on their hands because they do research to find out which songs will torment the person the most to make it unbearable for them. Sometimes even trigger certain behavior with certain songs......but I agree with you,  cannot encompass all professions and people.

NolanMurray
NolanMurray

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Lucia Matias
Lucia Matias

Not necessarily so....

I have ADHD and I hate working listening to music. It is unbearable. Silence is indeed golden for me. Other people I know with ADD/ADHD share the same view.