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Does Listening to Music Really Boost Concentration?

By HERWriter
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While most people will agree that music can help reduce stress and science shows that studying music can boost memory and math skills, people and science seem to remain divided on whether or not listening to music while working or studying actually helps concentration and productivity.

Under Certain Conditions

Stress related to confrontations, dates, exams, and other scenarios can be eased by listening to music. Some will listen to certain types of music to express their particular mood, and let the song and the artist play out what a person’s feeling inside when that person can’t really express those feelings herself.

Certain types of music can liven up a dreary, monotonous workplace or commute, and also lull a person to sleep.

“Australian Monash University researchers Drs. Wendy Knight and Nikki Richard found that compared to those who worked in silence, people listening to relaxing music while preparing for a presentation showed a decrease in anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate” (www.yourworkplace.ca).

And, yes, music can actually help a person concentrate.

The key to music’s effectiveness in any one of these scenarios is the type of music listened to and under which conditions.

Music as White Noise

Researchers from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff observed 25 students as they memorized lists of consonants. Some listened to music they liked or music they didn’t while they studied the lists; some had no music. The study revealed that students who listened to music, even music they liked, were not able to recall as many consonants as those who studied the list in silence.

A similar study tested students who listened to a voice repeating the number three, then with another voice saying random numbers. The random numbers proved to impede student performance while the repeating of the number three didn’t. This second observation suggested that quiet may not be all that’s important when it comes to productive studying or retention of information, and that lack of change in any background noise may also be the key to productivity.

Dr. Nick Perham of the institute states that: “If…revision processes rely upon remembering information in sequential order to solve a mathematical problem, then playing their choice of music in the background will make it more difficult for this sequence to be recalled” (www.dailymail.co.uk).

Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass explained that our brains process song lyrics in the same part as it processes words, which is the same part used for studying. Your brain can’t process lyrics and study at the same time. Instrumental music, however, may not prove as much a distraction, as the brain processes this input on the other side (http://voices.washingtonpost.com).

“Competing signals interfere with concentration. On the other hand, sometimes music can…act as ‘white noise,’ helping to mask an even greater distraction caused by other [noise] interference…music needs to be carefully selected…certain ‘musical’ rhythms are very physically and mentally disruptive…the uneven pulse of [rock and rap, for example] was out of sync with the body’s pulse, and leads to increased weakness, increased stress, and restlessness. Even blocking the ears does not help, because our bodies also pick up and respond to the beat…On the other hand…listening to…Baroque…Mozart [for example] can be beneficial in the classroom or study. Their rhythms are more in harmony with the body’s rhythm.” (www.memoryskills.com.au).

To Listen or Not?

Many workers agree that listening to music makes their workday tasks more enjoyable, decreases their boredom and increases productivity, at least those tasks that can be completed in time to the beat. “[A]t the University of Windsor [Canada], Dr. Teresa Lesiuk found in 2005 that the positive emotions and work quality of computer developers decreased when they were not listening to music compared to those who were. She also noted, however, that those who did not listen to music stayed on their task longer” (www.yourworkplace.ca).

Colette Robicheau, an organizing consultant and coach for Organize Anything in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, says that musical variety can actually hinder productivity and that familiar music can help increase concentration, even for individuals with clinical attention issues, such as ADHD. This is because new music requires the brain to process the notes, tune, melody, harmonies, beat, rhythm, and lyrics, while music that is already “processed” can buffer out other more disruptive noise (www.yourworkplace.ca).

When choosing the musical ambiance for your workplace, it is important to consider several things:
1) Not everyone likes the same kind of music
2) The radio may provide a variety of familiar tunes that people know and like and won’t have to process, but news or commercials can be distracting
3) Allowing employees to wear headphones is not a bad alternative. Workers can listen to whatever music makes them happy, and won’t bother those around them. However, workers may be viewed as antisocial and unapproachable, which is not a good impression for a successful career
4) Headphones may also play a roll in damaging hearing. “iPods can hit volumes of more than 120 decibels, which is louder than a chainsaw or a jack hammer," according to the Canadian Hearing Society. (www.yourworkplace.ca).

As a test to see if the music is actually helping or impeding your concentration, choose a report, paper, letter, email, etc. to read and read it with music on. Then turn the paper over, close the book or computer window, so you can’t see it. Turn the music off and see if you can actually remember what you read. Feel free to try this with numerous types of readings: numbers, prose, technical writings, etc., and with a variety of music to see how your brain handles the input and if you actually retain anything that you’ve read--then you will have your answer as to whether or not music actually helps you.

Sources: www.emedexpert.com; www.memoryskills.com.au; http://voices.washingtonpost.com; www.bbc.co.uk; www.yourworkplace.ca; www.dailymail.co.uk

Add a Comment2 Comments

Very interesting article, Darlene! I usually have music on when I'm working. I find that silence can be deafening. After reading your article, I may consider the types of music I listen to while working more intently. Great job!

August 30, 2010 - 10:15am
HERWriter (reply to Christine Jeffries)

Thanks, Christine.

I used to have soft rock playing when I worked in an office. It was one of those "white noise" situations. I was in an office, but everything still bustled outside my door, and I couldn't close it. So I would use the radio to drown things out.

There were times, though, where it was a distraction, but even their commercials became familiar and I hardly noticed them unless they were ones I really despised listening to.

When I started work from home, I used the same radio station to help me settle into a working mode because I had established that routine while working outside the home. Now I don't need it...though mostly out of necessity. I find it hard to write and edit and listen to the radio at the same time.

Also with a toddler, I relish the quiet when it happens!

August 30, 2010 - 11:22am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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