Out of tune?
What’s your view on listening to music while you work? I ask because I’ve just come across an interesting study suggesting that people who have music on while they’re working may perform less well.
For my own part, I often do listen to music while sitting at my desk – particularly the radio. It needs to be a station that is mostly music rather than speech – BBC’s Six Music is my choice – because otherwise I find myself getting distracted. But I work alone in a house that is noiseless when the kids are at school and sometimes that silence can feel oppressive.
Still, I’m also conscious that I need silence for some tasks – concentrating on reading material, for example, or anything that’s a bit tedious (and thus where I’m likely to welcome distractions). And I confess that when I’ve worked in an office in the past, I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable with colleagues sitting at their desks with headphones on. It was irritating having to wave to get their attention and I rather suspected they’d have been more productive without the music.
Now it turns out that my instincts – and my own experience – may be right. A study from the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff focused on 25 people aged 18 to 30 and examined their ability to remember information while listening to various sounds. Each of them was asked to recite back a list of eight consonants in a specific order. They had to do so under several different conditions: in a quiet environment, while music was playing they liked, and while music was playing they disliked. They were also tested while a voice repeated the number three or spoke single-digit numbers randomly.
The results showed that people performed best while in the quiet environment or while listening to a voice repeating the number three over and over - what the researchers describe as “a steady-state environment”. Music and other random sounds, by contrast, appeared to impair concentration – whether it was music that people liked or disliked.
The study’s findings are interesting because they appear to contradict previous research that has suggested music can enhance concentration – known as the Mozart Effect. In fact, however, that research has generally focused on people who listened to music before starting a particular task.
So there’s the lesson. If you’ve got a difficult bit of work to do, put some music on before you start. But once you get going, silence is likely to be a more effective concentration aid.