Did you know that on average, Americans spend more than 25 hours per week listening to music, and 16% of this listening happens at work?[i] Reasons for listening to music at work vary. For me, it isn’t simply a matter of enjoyment; it’s a strategy I often use to make myself more productive. Over the years, I’ve noticed that music can give me a boost when I need extra motivation to start a new task. In the past month, it has also blocked out irritating noise from the jackhammers near Heinz Hall. Although I intuitively know that listening to the right music at the right time can help me focus better, this week I decided to investigate what researchers have to say about the topic. I only found a handful of recent studies, but on the whole, they suggest that when used appropriately, music can indeed play a role in improving focus.
The particulars of a situation, including personal preference and the nature of the task being completed, determine whether background music increases productivity. For instance, Dr. Joanne Cantor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes, “If you’re doing a repetitive task requiring focus but not much cognitive processing, you can use upbeat music to boost your energy and attentiveness.”[ii] On the other hand, if a task uses a lot of mental bandwidth, try listening to subdued, repetitive music to become relaxed but not distracted.[iii]
Musical instrumentation can also affect concentration. Several studies, including a 2012 report by Shih, Huang, and Chiang, have found that lyrics can divert attention from the task at hand.[iv] As a result, researchers generally recommend listening to instrumental selections if you want to hear music while working.
With especially challenging tasks, it may even be best to turn off the music. For example, a 2010 study found that adults could better learn and recall new information when they did not listen to background music.[v] One of the researchers observed that although music can provide much needed motivation before starting a task or while taking breaks, listening during a task that requires your undivided attention can, like other forms of multitasking, lead to impaired performance.[vi] As a result, you should pay attention to your own needs and preferences, which will likely vary by situation and by day, to see if you will benefit from high-octane, motivational music; calming, instrumental music; or no music at all.
Finally, enjoyable music will most effectively improve your ability to concentrate. Dr. Teresa Lesiuk of the University of Miami recognizes the importance of personal preference, and as a result, she asks her research subjects to choose their own music and length of listening time during studies.[vii] Studies involving surgeons provide additional evidence in support of this theory, since they demonstrate that surgeons perform best when listening to preferred music.[viii] So if looking for music to help yourself focus, don’t forget to first choose music that you like!
Can music help you focus? Although research suggests that it can when used appropriately, you’ll ultimately need to judge for yourself. Come back next week to continue exploring and learn about some resources that can help you find music to keep yourself focused!
[i] “Music 360: Americans Make Music Their Top Entertainment Choice.” Nielsen. The Nielsen Company, 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
[ii] Cantor, Joanne. “Is Background Music a Boost or a Bummer?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 27 May 2013. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.
[iv] “Background music: effects on attention performance.” PubMed.gov. National Center for Biotechnology Information and US National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.
[v] Paul, Annie Murphy. “Does Listening to Music While Working Make You Less Productive?” Time. Time Inc., 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.
[vii] Padnani, Amisha. “The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 11 Aug. 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.
[viii] Paul, Annie Murphy. “Does Listening to Music While Working Make You Less Productive?” Time. Time Inc., 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.