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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
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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
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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

3 Answers 3

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.

Cutler, A., & Clifton, C. (1999). Comprehending spoken language: A blueprint of the listener. The neurocognition of language, 123-166.
Bregman, A. S. (1984, July). Auditory scene analysis. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Pattern Recognition (pp. 168-175).
Ylias, G., & Heaven, P. C. (2003). The influence of distraction on reading comprehension: a Big Five analysis. Personality and individual differences, 34(6), 1069-1079.
Cassidy, G., & MacDonald, R. A. (2007). The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 35(3), 517-537.

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It is not clear how the paper by Ylias and Heaven (2003) addresses background noise. They do refer to and discuss another study as part of their introduction, but their study focuses on television distraction effects, not music. It seems more appropriate to reference the old original study in your answer, and also highlight the differences in personality types. –  Steven Jeuris yesterday

As mentioned in a recent study by Thompson et al. (2012), there are two perspectives which account for the effects of background music on reading comprehension specifically (but as I argue later, these seem generalizable): the Cognitive-Capacity hypothesis and the Arousal-Mood hypothesis.

In short, the potential cost of background music listening for reading comprehension is that it places demands on attention. The potential benefit of background music listening is that it can enhance arousal levels and mood. The overall effect of background music on task performance may be a balance between these costs and benefits.

Drawing from multitasking literature, one would expect that depending on the cognitive requirements of the task you are performing, it might be possible that certain music is either appropriate or not. The ACT-R architecture (Anderson. J. R., 2007) assumes "the human cognitive architecture consists of a set of largely independent modules associated with different brain regions". E.g. vision, audition, manual control and speech. Although all modules can operate in parallel, each module can only serve one task at a time. Some music (e.g. vocal) may cause more capacity interference when tasks compete for limited resources.

Thompson et al. (2012) investigate specifically the effect of tempo and intensity of background music on a reading comprehension task, but provide a nice review of earlier studies. Check out the full paper (PDF). Their findings indicate ...

[...] that listening to background instrumental music is most likely to disrupt reading comprehension when the music is fast and loud. Music listening may consume more of listeners’ finite attentional resources when it comprises a greater number of auditory events per unit time that are difficult to ignore because of greater intensity. [...] Music that was slow and/or soft had no significant detrimental effects on reading comprehension, [...]

Although reporting on an overall null effect, an older meta-analysis by Kämpfe et al. (2010) had a conflicting conclusion:

[...] a comparison of studies that examined background music compared to no music indicates that background music disturbs the reading process, has some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact on emotional reactions and improves achievements in sports. A comparison of different types of background music reveals that the tempo of the music influences the tempo of activities that are performed while being exposed to background music.

As proposed by Kämpfe et al. (2010), and indicated by the results of Thompson et al., such interference effects are dependent on the structural characteristics of the music.

Overall it seems not all music has been shown to be detrimental as background music, but fast and loud music is more likely to disrupt ongoing tasks. To my knowledge no more detailed studies have been done which incorporate both type of tasks and different types of music. The question also arises to which degree these studies capture longitudinal effects in a real world environment with more complex tasks.

Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Letnic, A. K. (2012). Fast and loud background music disrupts reading comprehension. Psychology of Music, 40(6), 700-708.
Anderson, J. R. (2007). How can the human mind occur in the physical universe?. Oxford University Press.
Kämpfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2010). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music, 0305735610376261.

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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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