By Wilma Bedford
Do you work and study with music in the background? It may surprise you that research shows you don’t necessarily perform better or are more productive with music in your ears.
The idea that music can do all of the above dates from the Second World War and specifically pertaining to 23 June 1940, when 10 000 British troops were trapped in Normandy, France. The British government called in the aid of the BBC to play lively music in the ammunition manufacturing factories twice a day. The idea was that the music would speed up work performance so that ammunition could reach the trapped troops faster. It was found that the productivity had indeed risen by 12-15% (an untested result). 80 years later everyone walks around with earphones; there is music in numerous workplaces and background music in public venues – but does it necessarily enhance productivity?
In 1993 the Mozart effect theory appeared, which was proven to be nonsense, and that alleged that to listen to Mozart for 10 minutes improves spatial tasks and that children become more clever if they listen to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos K448. The only truth contained in this theory, is that Mozart’s music boosts the listeners’ mood and that they do better with tasks for five to ten minutes but definitely don’t become more intelligent.
Music can actually be detrimental as it places a burden on our working memory and consequently problem-solving tasks become cognitively more demanding as one part of the brain tries to make sense of the music, especially where the music is unpredictable, as with jazz. A research study with students found that they did more poorly with maths and comprehension tests while listening to music, regardless of the kind of music.
What kind of music can work?
Your own taste in music, your musical training and you own measure of distractibility will determine your choice, but research shows that certain music works better for certain tasks. Loud music will be disturbing while Mozart won’t make you more clever.
Instrumental music or music with lyrics aren’t necessarily better; it has to do with the complexity of the music itself. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody will be more disturbing than something with a simple three-chord structure.
With well-known music you focus better while unknown music is disturbing because you try to absorb the new tune. Neuroscientists have found that concentration improves when you know the music you are listening to.
Lyrics break your concentration because it steers your train of thought in a different direction, even in a nostalgic direction, and you later find that you are singing along.
Classical music and more specifically Baroque music improves concentration and is relaxing, even if you aren’t paying attention to it. Classical music masks background noise in the office; try Vivaldi or Bach’s Overture Suite No 3 for this purpose.
Ambient music below 70dB or sounds from nature can improve work performance when you are busy with creative tasks. In the workplace music lets workers feel better and supports them with the completion of boring routine tasks. If you are preparing for an exam, a music session of ten minutes beforehand will place you in a good mood, but make sure your choice of music is not too fast or too loud and that the lyrics don’t distract your thoughts. The purpose of the music after all is to help you focus and blot out background noise.
Choose music that you like, but remember that the kind of music you listen to has an effect on the complexity of the task. Loud music is good for simple tasks such as routine work in a factory or gym, but silence is still the best “music” for the completion of a complex task.
Does music help us work better? It depends
Gorvett, Zaria. 18th March 2020
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