Does listening to music help you work better?

“Whistle while you work” is classic advice, straight from Snow White. Science backs it to a certain extent, too — listening to music on the treadmill, for instance, helps people persevere through their runs. But does music create a productive backdrop for more mental work? What about for any kind of work?

This question is a bit simplistic, so it’s no wonder that no one has satisfactorily answered it yet. The researchers who discovered the “Mozart effect,” found that listening to Mozart sonatas before a mental activity sparked stronger spatial reasoning (it didn’t actually make people smarter). Cool, but specific. What about Mozart sonatas during a task? What about death metal?

Hard to say. There have been various studies on music and work, but the results have been mixed. Perhaps, a recent study proposed, this is because music’s effect on work performance is complicated. It’s not just “good” or “bad” — it depends on the type of work, the type of music, and the worker’s personality.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 142 undergraduate students and asked them to complete two tasks, one simple and one complex. The simple one was searching a list of words and crossing out the ones including the letter “a”; the complex one was studying pairs of words and then recalling them in a test setting.

Subjects did their tasks either in silence or with a soundtrack of instrumental music; the music was either simple or complex. (Both tracks had identical piano, strings, and synth elements, but the complex one had drums and bass layered in.)

Researchers assessed participants’ personalities beforehand, too. Each study subject took an evaluation that gauged how much they enjoyed external stimulation. The 28-item questionnaire asked them to respond to statements like “It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people” and “I am seldom excited about my work.”

So … what made people perform best?

The results were counterintuitive. Basically, researchers found that people with a preference for external stimulation — think people who check their phones while watching TV or actually play on the office swingset — were less able to handle working to music. They were the ones who most wanted to, ironically, but they performed best on the complex task when they worked in silence. Their peers who didn’t prefer external stimuli performed best when music played.

This held true for the study’s simple task, too. The external simulation seekers performed best to no music or simple music, whereas their peers who bored less easily performed best to complex music.

These results suggest that people who seek external stimulation have a huge, almost unwieldy amount of attention that they can give the world. Their attention splits easily when multiple activities — say, doing work and listening to music — compete for their attention. But isolated with a task, they can get very deeply absorbed. People on the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, benefitted from the distraction, since it was just enough to keep their minds from wandering.

Not that people who seek external stimulation are unique. Across the board, people can enjoy only so much distraction. As the study authors put it: “While distractions may facilitate simple task performance to a degree, there is also a point at which distractions will overload task performers even during simple tasks.” For external stimulation seekers, overload happens earlier, because they’re actively seeking the sensation. Overload may be bad for performance, but it’s definitely not boring. Of course, it also depends on what you listen to.  Mozart anyone?

Check out my related post: What does pivot in business really mean?

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