Many of us listen to music while we work, thinking that it will help us to concentrate on the task at hand. And in fact, recent research has found that music can have beneficial effects on creativity. When it comes to other areas of performance, however, the impact of background music is more complicated.
The assumption that listening to music when working is beneficial to output likely has its roots in the so-called “Mozart effect”, which gained wide media attention in the early 1990s. Put simply, this is the finding that spatial rotation performance (mentally rotating a 3D dimensional shape to determine whether it matches another or not) is increased immediately after listening to the music of Mozart, compared to relaxation instructions or no sound at all. Such was the attention that this finding garnered that the then US governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, proposed giving free cassettes or CDs of Mozart’s music to prospective parents.
Subsequent studies have cast doubt on the necessity of the music of Mozart to produce this effect – a “Schubert effect”, a “Blur effect”, and even a “Stephen King effect” (his audiobook rather than his singing) have all been observed. In addition, musicians could show the effect purely from imagining the music rather than actually listening to it.
So researchers then suggested that the “Mozart effect” was not due to his music as such, but rather to people’s optimum levels of mood and arousal. And so it became the “mood and arousal effect”.
Unfortunately, the situations in which most mood and arousal effects are observed are slightly unrealistic. Do we really sit and listen to music, switch it off, and then engage in our work in silence? More likely is that we work with our favourite tunes playing in the background.
How sound affects performance has been the topic of laboratory research for over 40 years, and is observed through a phenomenon called the irrelevant sound effect. Basically, this effect means that performance is poorer when a task is undertaken in the presence of background sound (irrelevant sound that you are ignoring), in comparison to quiet.
To study irrelevant sound effect, participants are asked to complete a simple task which requires them to recall a series of numbers or letters in the exact order in which they saw them – similar to trying to memorise a telephone number when you have no means to write it down. In general, people achieve this by rehearsing the items either aloud or under their breath. The tricky thing is being able to do this while ignoring any background noise.
Two key characteristics of the irrelevant sound effect are required for its observation. First, the task must require the person to use their rehearsal abilities, and second, the sound must contain acoustical variation – for example, sounds such as “n, r, p” as opposed to “c, c, c”. Where the sound does not vary much acoustically, then performance of the task is much closer to that observed in quiet conditions. Interestingly, it does not matter whether the person likes the sound or not. Performance is equally as poor whether the background sound is music the person likes or dislikes.
The irrelevant sound effect itself comes from attempting to process two sources of ordered information at the same time – one from the task and one from the sound. Unfortunately, only the former is required to successfully perform the serial recall task, and the effort expended in ensuring that irrelevant order information from the sound is not processed actually impedes this ability.
A similar conflict is also seen when reading while in the presence of lyrical music. In this situation, the two sources of words – from the task and the sound – are in conflict. The subsequent cost is poorer performance of the task in the presence of music with lyrics.
What this all means is that whether having music playing in the background helps or hinders performance depends on the task and on the type of music, and only understanding this relationship will help people maximise their productivity levels. If the task requires creativity or some element of mental rotation then listening to music one likes can increase performance. In contrast, if the task requires one to rehearse information in order then quiet is best, or, in the case of reading comprehension, quiet or instrumental music.
One promising area of the impact of music on cognitive abilities stems from actually learning to play a musical instrument. Studies show that children who are being musically trained show an improvement in intellectual abilities. However, the reasons behind this are, at present, unknown and likely to be complex. It may not be the music per se that produces this effect but more the activities associated with studying music, such as concentration, repeated practice, lessons and homework.
It’s fair to to say the majority of students prefer to study while listening to music. Whether frantically cramming some last-minute reading to Kanye, or finalising an essay to the sound of the Arctic Monkeys, go to any university or college library and the majority of students there will be listening to their music of choice.
Music is a very significant part of our daily lives; the image of the quietly-focused student isolating themselves into a personal study zone has led to interest into whether listening to music actually helps studies or not. Research into the field has proven fairly ambiguous, with many studies contradicting each other. However this does provide an useful insight for students who maybe looking into ways to use music to enhance their exam performance.
The most famous theory linking music and cognitive performance is the ‘Mozart effect’, the popular idea that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. The research itself was interested in the relation between Mozart and ‘spatial-temporal reasoning’, or knowing how to fit things into other things, basically. The idea that music - particularly classical - can improve exam results has endured, with websites such mozarteffect.com selling music supposedly designed to “charge the brain.”
However, research has shown that performance in tasks involving memory and concentration was better in a silent environment, though, studying in place often disturbed by talkers, sneezers, or traffic, few students have access to a silent study space. Subjects tested in environments with background music were found to get better results than those tested against background noise. Therefore, taking along an iPod and a set of headphones may come in handy if you’re looking to avoid being distracted by any ambient sounds.
The style, volume, rhythm and ‘state’ of the music a student listens to, as well as the personality of the student, can also be significant factors. Classical music is generally viewed as the best to listen to whilst studying, however there is no decisive research to back this. What has been proven is that listening to music which is constant in state, has a steady a repetitive pulse, and is not too loud is better for concentration than inconsistent musical styles, meaning you should probably avoid listening to anything labelled ‘Mathcore’ when trying to be productive. The same study also found evidence that people perform worse when listening to their preferred, rather than neutral, music.
Personality has also been shown to affect performance, with introverts more likely to test worse than extroverts. Similarly, people tested who are bad at multi-tasking have also been shown to test worse when listening to background music. For those who feel the pressure during exams, it has been observed that calming music, for example a Haydn string quartet, can help to reduce anxiety in an individual.
This highlights the main thing to consider when listening to music while studying: that how you do so really just depends on you. There is no decisive doctrine or absolute piece of research which tells you what to do, whether it’s a Four Tet Boiler Room set or Cannibal Corpse you think helps you to study, do what you believe helps. Listening to music has been shown to cause the release of dopamine, meaning that it is a pleasurable, rewarding experience which can relax an individual.
On the whole, what a student can take from research is that using music to create an environment yourself is conducive towards the task you wish to complete.Reuse content