Is Listening To Music Detrimental To Our Work Performance?

27 Sep

Is music debilitating to our work ethic?  Should we be listening the radio or putting in our ear buds at the office?  Previous research has reached conflicting conclusions on the tie between music and performance: in some cases, the addition of music can be a positive diversion (such as distracting patients away from pain), in others it can interfere with our learning and task performance.  Certain intra-musical characteristics have been shown to affect an individual’s performance such as tonality and whether the listening samples are instrumental or vocal music.  Even musical training how shown to be an influence (one study by Randsell and Gilroy (2001) demonstrated a significant difference in the performance of those with musical training).

Alice-Ann Darrow, Christopher Johnson, Shawn Agnew, Erin Rink Fuller, and Mihoko Uchisaka wanted to create a study that would emulate the “natural” work environment (complete with coffee machine and all), by having the participants bring in their favorite music to listen too during the study.  This would enhance the mundane reality of the test environment and provide results that might shed clarity on the matter.

The participants were music and non-music majors from a local university.  The study was comprised of two conditions: the first condition required the participants to perform the attention task while listening to their self-selected music.  The second condition removed the music (interestedly there was no third condition that required the participants to perform under a control condition such as white noise).

The participants undertook the d2 test of attention task, that required the subjects to read lines of “d”s on a sheet of paper, and cross out the “d”s that had two dashes above or below them.  The attention demanding task, challanges our selective attention, that is our ability to focus on stimuli that is deemed important while blocking out external distractions.  Both the music and non-music majors performed the task under both conditions.  The presentation order of the conditions was changed throughout the trials to eliminate any order effects.

The results, not surprisingly, add to the ambiguity of music’s affect on performance.  The researchers found that both the music and non-music majors performed better on the attention task during the music condition. Overall, the music majors performed better than the non-music majors on the attention task, suggesting that music experience might negate the distracting affects of external auditory stimuli.  The order of the condition did seem to affect performance.  When presented with the music condition first, the music majors performed less of the attention task.  Yet in the instances where the silent condition preceded the music condition, no such affect was found.  The researchers suggest that the absence of music, after its initial presentation, might be more distracting then the music itself.

As noted by the researchers previous studies found music to both distract and facilitate performance.   According to these results, the music condition accelerated performance on the attention task.  Perhaps the familiarity of the self-selected music excerpts is responsible: previous exposure might be less-of a distraction than other unfamiliar environmental noises, and thus our focus of attention can be maintained to the task at hand.  It would be interesting to run another trial with the same participants but with music supplied by the researchers.

Darrow, A.A., Johnson, C., Agnew, S., Fuller, E.R., & Uchisaka, M. (2006). Effect of preferred music as a distraction on music majors’ and nonmusic majors’ selective attention. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, (170), 21-31.


3 Responses to “Is Listening To Music Detrimental To Our Work Performance?”

  1. --- September 28, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    Do you think it matters what kind of music it was that the participants self-selected? In other words, did the participants choose music they knew was conducive to their own studying/concentrating?

  2. freezegelman September 29, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    That’s a very good question! The researchers instructed the participants to bring music that they normally listen to while “driving, studying, or engaged in other activities,” so I bet most picked music that they had previously studied with. Though, this experiment did not really require the participants to “learn” new material, we must make sure that we do not come away with this study thinking that music helps us learn (in fact, other research has leaned to the conclusion that it doesn’t). Instead the study focused on selective attention, and our ability to complete a task with or without distracting auditory stimuli (‘music’) and how our musical education might interplay. And as the research suggests, listening to familiar music might be beneficial to our performance (especially to those who have musical training). What’s the take home message? If you listen to music while working, select music that you are familiar, even if your co-worker is going on about how good Drake’s latest album is. 🙂

    As far as “kinds of music” there has been a lot of research that has examined specific music components that might influence our performance. One study found that listening to tonal music was more detrimental to students completing a listening vocabulary affect, than listening to atonal music(Pearsall 1989). How active or stimulating the background music is might also have an affect: one theory suggests that active music puts greater stress on our cognitive space and is consequently, more distracting in comparison to subdued music (North & Hargreaves, 1999).

    Thanks for the comment!

    – Parker

  3. Bruce October 3, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    Possibly the most interesting thing I have read this month!

    – Bruce

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