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I, like many computer programmers, love to listen to music while I work. I have always believed that music helps me stay focused and motivated, and improves my performance on many types of tasks, espescially "busywork". However my company's CEO disagrees with me, and believes that music is a distraction and leads to reduced productivity. Have any studies been done on whether listening to music while performing a task improves or hinders one's ability to perform that task? Is there a consensus in the cognitive science community regarding this?

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I remember reading a study about this while browsing for information whether or not we should play background music at my internship. :) Don't have time now, but if this doesn't get any responses I'm doing some research! It would also be interesting to see whether different kinds of music can have different effects. I tend to believe house music (with a steady slow beat) allows me to focus more while programming. –  Steven Jeuris Feb 11 '12 at 17:24
Exactly, I agree, I find a steady beat keeps me on pace, similar to the drum beat on a viking ship :-) –  Josh Gitlin Feb 11 '12 at 17:34
From some off-and-on reading as well as self-experimentation, my answer is: "It depends." I don't have any references so I'll post this as a comment. Some people respond differently, but for most: 1) Vocal music tends to be distracting if you are doing any but routine work. 2) Instrumental music tends to be better than white noise to shut out distractions, because many people can "hear" things in white noise which is not a problem with the structured sounds of music. 3) For really intense concentration, even instrumental music is distracting. –  William B Swift Feb 12 '12 at 4:16

2 Answers 2

It basically depends on how the particular musical performance is perceived by the listener. Cognitive process of listening seems to be comprise several layers, which follows a bottom-up direction.

First step is to decode relevant signal(s), among a complex package of sound. This is where the irrelevant noise is eliminated. Can music be eliminated in this level? Highly unlikely, but still possible. I do not know of a particular experiment but when the music is being played in a far destination, or with a low volume, or if the participant is highly concentrated to the task; then it may be eliminated in this step. But the key point in this step is that the term "noise" refers to aperiodic background sounds. Therefore, my first impression is that music, being periodical, must decrease the task performance. Cutler and Clifton (1999) gives an overview on the entire listening process. Second step is the grouping of different sound sources. There is also modelling studies that aims to explain this phenomenon (Bregman, 1990). Steps in listening continues further, but those steps are beyond the scope of this question.

But there are other studies also. Ylias and Heaven (2003) showed that the background noise negatively effects reading comprehension. So far so good. Cassidy and MacDonald (2007) showed that task performance on silence is greater than in low arousal music, and that is greater than noise, and that is even greater than high arousal music conditions. This is interesting, because it now introduces the affective state of the listener into the equation, which makes it a lot difficult to handle. Another result is that the effect of the noise here is comparable to the effect of background music. But we have to note that the details of the noise in this experiment is not given in detail, only commented as "the everyday noise". It would be more conclusive if we just know whether it is the background sound of a television (periodic) or a traffic noise (aperiodic).

Combining these references, I cannot easily conclude that music is taken as a "noise". It seems that music reduces the task performance, by negatively effecting a later step in the listening process.

Ending note: There are several semiformal-informal studies on the web also. They study directly the "work/office performance", therefore I must say that they lack a little bit of a controlled environment. In such environments we can even confidently say that music improves our performance in particular situations. But what we miss is that office environments comprise several unhandled parameters that makes it hard for scientific experimental setup (i.e. listening music may improve the performance if your office mates chit chat next to you).

Ending note 2: I was interested in this topic a time ago. So I welcome more recent references or comments.

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I realise this is anecdotal, but the answer to this does vary between people. My wife likes to have nothing to listen to while studying or concentrating. I like to have the TV on normally, or Chill Radio, whereas by youngest son has metal music on - not what most people would consider conducive the thought of any sort.

I understand that my wife finds that music or sounds are distracting - she needs to put effort into focussing. I, OTOH, find that the sounds help my focus, but eliminating other distractions - becasue I am in control of the sounds, they are not distracting. Youngest son enjoys the music, so for him it is just pleasant background to studying. Incidentally, my wife and I differ on having a tickign clock in the bedrooom too - she cannot stand it, whereas I fid it soothing and calming, and helps me get to sleep.

I am sure that I have seem studies that back up these sorts of differences, and that they are about differences in the way we think and process information. Cannot find anythig ATM though.

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It would be great if you could find those studies and link to them! Unfortunately without those this answer is completely subjective... –  Josh Gitlin Feb 13 '12 at 23:06

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