The feeling is underwhelming but ever present. You just can’t muster the want to get any work done. Maybe you stare at the screen aimlessly; check your Facebook feed a dozen times; or get up and grab a snack…again.
Or maybe you work in a really noisy office, and it’s hard to be productive when you’re constantly being distracted by coworkers.
Whatever it is, you’re not alone. Lots of people feel this way. And good news: there’s a cure.
The short answer: it depends on the kind of music.
Anecdotally, many of us have found music to be distracting during work, and research studies have actually proven that this mental distraction does occur when certain music is played.
In much of this research, dating back to the earliest studies,and stretching to the more recent investigations, scientists tested specific kinds of music, like popular music, which nearly always has lyrics. In addition, test subjects were generally assigned reading tasks for testing, which measured things like reading comprehension and efficacy. Essentially, the tests only showed how well can you read while listening to someone else’s words.
One of the key findings though in a more recent study, is that while popular music was detrimental to reading ability, classical music wasnotdistracting at all.
So again, distraction is dependent on the kind of music, which seems likely related to the presence of lyrics, among other factors.
Creativity can be improved by just the tiniest bit of attention being taken up by ambient noise. One recent study demonstrated this phenomenon by showing that low to moderate levels of ambient background noise actually improved creativity. The study indicated a little ambient noise took up just enough attention to keep people from unhelpfully fixating on minutiae, which created opportunities for abstract thinking.
We all would like to be a little bit more productive during our days. As it turns out, studies have shown that certain kinds of music can help productivity levels as well. Space-filling music, generally known as background music, is best for improving focus and pace in repetitive tasks. Background music has been found to increase productivity, decrease the time each task takes, and increase the enjoyment of the task. Not only will you work faster, but you will have more fun doing it (in theory…)!
Music can help learning via what psychologists call “state-dependent memory.” This is the theory that you more easily remember information associated with a mental or emotional state when you are once again in that same state. Music-dependent memory is a subcategory of this research. According to this theory, music can induce a mood that is then associated with learned information; then, when the same mood is induced via the same music, memory of that information is improved.
Music can also have another effect on memory: it actually provides a context for learning. As a UC Berkeley Neuroscientist, who studied memory and learning, once told me: “Memory is literally building connections.” Music can provide an environmental context for learning, something to which you can associate information. For instance, if you learn words while Rachmaninoff is played, you will remember them better (forget them less) while Rachmaninoff is playing again.
Frustration is known to interfere with performance. We’ve all felt ourselves get worse and worse at a task as we become more frustrated with it. Frustration is stressful, and can lead to anger. Too much stress is not helpful, and nobody thinks at their best when they are angry.
Good news though: listening to music can also help when you are frustrated.
Researchers intentionally frustrated a group of people by giving them an impossible task, then played different kinds of music for some of the frustrated subjects, and gave them another task. Those who had listened to relaxing music did much better. Music ameliorated the negative effects that frustration would have had on performance.
However, this effect was only seen when researchers used music with certain qualities.
There is now notable research that demonstrates that music can decrease the physical and psychological consequences of stress. Music has been shown to improve relaxation after a stressful event. Subjects in one study were given a stressful test, and then some of them were played music. Those who listened to music reported less psychological stress, and their physiology showed the same decrease in arousal.
Music can also help you remain less stressed in the first place. Researchers played music for some of their study subjects, and then intentionally stressed the whole group of subjects. As you might expect by now, the group that heard music beforehand were less stressed and recovered faster from it.
Cognitive performance improvement through music can be done in a few ways. One example would be through emotional matching. By matching the emotion of the music to the emotion you are feeling, you can increase cognitive performance significantly. Thus, if you are ready to work, it makes sense that emotionally volatile music would be distracting. However, by the same logic, music that effectively matches an alert, focused, and pleasant state, would improve performance.
In the laboratory, playing music while engaging in difficult cognitive tasks involving different modes of reasoning has been shown to improve performance on those tasks. The study concluded that, “background music increased the speed of spatial processing and the accuracy of linguistic processing. The findings suggest that background music can have predictable effects on cognitive performance.” Again though, only specific types of music do this.
One study tested subjects out of the lab, in a real-world setting. Scientists played music for employees working at intellectually challenging, high intensity tasks. They found that playing background music noticeably improved performance. Cognitive performance is improved by music both in and out of the lab.
There is one more way that music may help performance, creativity, and problem solving. This is through ‘Flow’. Flow is an altered state of consciousness that is a sub-category of peak-experiences.
Research on Flow is relatively new, but what we do know is that when in the Flow state, you become very present, your awareness is extremely focused on your current actions and sensations. You lose a sense of self-reflective or self-consciousness that we normally have when awake. Finally, you feel intrinsically rewarded by what you are doing, such that you are not attached to the outcome, but instead enjoy the process.
Many of these features are experienced when listening to music.
While studies that demonstrate music’s ability to induce flow during cognitive tasks are still in progress, there is already research that shows that music can induce flow and peak experiences. Flow has been shown to help with creative invention. Being in a state of Flow while learning helps when the learned information is later tested. Flow has also been connected to creativity.
It is likely that music, by inducing key features of Flow, can increase your ability to work effectively.
Overall, music has been shown to help improve productivity and increase cognitive performance both in the lab and the real world. Music can provide an environmental and emotional context for learning. Listening to music can prevent you from getting stressed; when you do get stressed, music can help you recover and relax faster. When you get frustrated, music can prevent this frustration from negatively impacting your work. Finally, music can put you in an enjoyable, creative, and incredibly focused state of consciousness.