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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.

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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.)

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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?)

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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”?