Should you listen to music while doing focused work? Well, it depends

Lab results found music’s effects on your work depend on the type of music, the complexity of what you’re working on, and the the person doing the tasks.

Most people seem to have their earphones in at work, but what are they listening to? Some people can’t work and listen to music with words in it, some people listen to music so loud it bleeds out of their earbuds, and some can’t listen to anything at all if they want to concentrate. There are people who swear by classical music – remember the “Mozart effect” that found people performed better after listening to a Mozart sonata? Well, research has been unable to replicate that.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied by researchers Manuel F. Gonzalez at Baruch College and John R. Aiello at Rutgers, lab results found music’s effects on your work depend on the type of music, the complexity of what you’re working on, and the the person performing the tasks.


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In the lab, the researchers sought to answer the question of how music complexity and volume moderated the relationship between the preference for external stimulation and the performance of simple and complex tasks.

The researchers recruited 142 undergraduate students and asked them to complete two tasks – one simple, one complex. The simple task involved identifying and crossing out all of the letter As in a text. The complex task consisted. studying lists of word pairs, then attempting to recall the pairs when presented with just one word from each pair.

Each task was performed while listening to one of two versions of a piece of instrumental music (there were two versions of the musical piece, one more complex), at a soft or louder volume. A control group listened to no music.

What they found

Music is good for easy tasks

Music – especially loud, or complex, music – can be good for simple tasks, as it causes a narrowing of focus. Because easy work lets your mind wander, a loud jolt of music brings your attention back on track.

And complex work, as well

Amazingly, loud or complex music did not hinder the performance of complex tasks. The researcher’s’ theory was that music would not be good for more difficult work, as it takes attention away from what should already be absorbing most of your attention already. Under these conditions, however, they were mostly proven wrong.

It also depends on who you are and how much outside stimuli you crave

Researchers found that music disrupted performing tasks depending on whether or not you were a person who wanted external stimulation – meaning, are you prone to boredom? For example, a boredom-prone person – one who craved external stimuli – actually performed a complex task better without music. The idea was that the complex task took up all of their attention; music would have been a distraction.

Ultimately, the relationship between music and performance of cognitive tasks is not “one-size-fits-all,” writes the researchers. What works for you, your attention span, and your need for stimulation may not work for the next person. Music, in general, is not good or bad for task performance in one single way for everyone.

So put those earbuds back in, if you’re in the mood for listening.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.