All Work, No Playlist: Do we work better with or without music?

Here is a scenario you’re probably familiar with: you grab your computer and sit down to finish that assignment you’ve been dreading. You grab your headphones, pick a playlist and get into the fray. Five minutes in, you realise the music is distracting you too much. The headphones come off and you work quietly. Ten minutes later, the silence is deafening and you hit the play button again. The cycle repeats until you find a song that works, give up entirely or decide to take a break.

Although everyone has their preference, listening to music while working is usually a divisive subject. Why does a soundtrack help us focus sometimes, while other times it completely derails our minds? 

The answer, dear reader, may lie in the complex intersection between cognition, personality, and behaviour. If you’ve ever felt curious about the role music plays in our productivity, you have arrived at the article that will (hopefully) dispel some of your doubts.

What You Listen To

You’ve probably heard that listening to Mozart can make you smarter. This is somewhat true; listening to classical music enhances your spatial intelligence. It has been found that people who listened to Mozart before completing a spacial task scored significantly higher than those who had listened to relaxing verbal instructions or nothing at all.[1] The logical conclusion was that Mozart managed to produce the auditory equivalent to an energy drink.

This is the piece that was used in the experiment – Mozart’s K. 448 Sonata for Two Pianos

However, this study had a couple of issues. Firstly, the boost in spatial intelligence only lasts only for 10-15 minutes, which means the Mozart Effect is not suitable for continuous work. Secondly, the original results of this experiment are very hard to replicate.[2,3] This could mean that the Mozart Effect was either a product of chance… Or that there’s more to the story.

A popular explanation of the effect is the mood-arousal hypothesis.[4,5] According to it, the intelligence boost is driven by the pleasantness of the music instead of its ‘classical’ composition. To test this, researchers added a ‘sad’ song to the original study and compared it with the Mozart piece to see if the mood of the melody changed anything. They found three main things: (1) Mozart’s music, indeed, evoked a Mozart Effect; (2) the two songs caused different moods, states of arousal, and pleasure; and (3) the Mozart effect disappeared when the mood remained constant.

It is a belief that playing classical music to your unborn child will make them smarter. Taken from NPR

The message of the story is that, according to the mood-arousal hypothesis, you wouldn’t have to listen to classical music to get a boost in spatial intelligence; any song that enhances your mood will trigger the Mozart Effect.[6,7]

What You’re Like

Of course, not everyone enjoys Mozart. Tastes are different because people are different. Since this is the case, different personality types should react differently to music during work, right?

Personality is one of those things researchers like to invoke when they talk about cognitive performance. While there are many facets of personality, introversion versus extroversion has become the focus for most of these studies—particularly how listening to music affects these traits.

Introverts vs. Extroverts. Taken from Cloudinary

This is because the introvert brain and the extrovert brain are wired differently.[8]For introverts, less external stimulation means better performance. Extroverts, on the other hand, will thrive on high levels of stimulation. Music is thus processed differently by each kind of person. Our introvert friend may feel overwhelmed by the background noise and shut down, whereas their extroverted sibling will be jamming during the study session.[9,10]

The answer is not so clear-cut, regardless. A little-known fact about personality is that traits like extroversion-introversion lie on a spectrum. There are people who feel that they are an extroverted introvert, an introverted extrovert, or even an ambivert.[11,12] Because of this, it’s extremely difficult (more like, impossible) to predict whether the music will work in favour or against a person’s productivity.

What You’re Doing

Now, we’ve covered the music you listen to and the personality type. What are we missing? Oh, right: what are you working on, exactly? Think of the tasks you usually do when you are listening to music. Are they complex endeavours that demand a lot of attention? Or are they simple, repetitive tasks that almost feel… automatic? 

Let’s first understand the psychology of simple and complex tasks. The distraction-conflict theory of social facilitation[13] says that we use less attention to perform well on the easy stuff (e.g. designing, drawing). This leaves a large chunk of our mental capacity free to wander off. This is called task-unrelated thinking.[14] On the other hand, complex tasks force us to focus more mental energy on them (e.g. reading comprehension, writing), which means our brain can’t bother to pay attention to other elements in the environment.

Music can also influence your mood while you are driving and therefore impact your driving behaviour! Taken from Wall Street Journal

In line with this theory, listening to music while doing a simple task could facilitate cognitive performance. It blocks out irrelevant cues and nudges our brain to concentrate on a single goal. Conversely, listening to music while doing something difficult can impair our performance because we are forced to distribute our mental resources between work and music.

So, maybe it’s not a good idea to listen to your favourite artist’s new album while you write that essay, after all.

The Bottom Line

So, what did we learn today? Essentially, Mozart (and classical music, in general) can be good for your productivity, but not all the time. There is research supporting the enhancing effect and research refuting it altogether. Your personality traits could also determine whether you benefit from a noisy environment or whether you nurture from the quietness. This also lies on the sliding scale of personality. Finally, the difficulty of the task can determine whether music acts as a filter for your brain or as a brick wall.

Now, the fun thing about this conclusion is that all of this could apply to you… or nothing at all. Everything we described above refers to trends of behaviours and correlations between different measures in distinct circumstances. Ultimately, however, music is vast and diverse, with everyone having unique tastes. Whether it helps to have a study/work playlist or noise-cancelling headphones is a question that has individual answers

Instrumental music could also work better than lyrical music and music streaming platforms have loads of instrumental study playlists. Taken from Spotify

So, then, is this article a useless compendium of information? Not really. You can use the experiments and theories we described as a guide to orient yourself when you’re wondering what’s best for your productivity. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish, the kind of person that you are, and what music you want to listen to. In the intersection of those three subjects resides the perfect harmony between efficiency and pleasure.

For better effect, you could even try running at-home experiments on yourself using different genres of music.

Whether it be Mozart, Maluma or Metallica, just make sure your environment matches your objectives.


Academic References

  1. Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, C. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365(6447), 611-611.
  2. Steele, K. M., Bass, K. E., & Crook, M. D. (1999). The mystery of the Mozart effect: Failure to replicate. Psychological Science, 10(4), 366-369.
  3. Steele, K. M., Dalla Bella, S., Peretz, I., Dunlop, T., Dawe, L. A., Humphrey, G. K., … & Olmstead, C. G. (1999). Prelude or requiem for the ‘Mozart effect’?. Nature, 400(6747), 827-827.
  4. Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological science, 12(3), 248-251.
  5. Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35(1), 5-19.
  6. Schellenberg, E., & Hallam, S. (2006). Music listening and cognitive abilities in 10 and 11 year-olds: The blur effect. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 202-209.
  7. Lesiuk, T. (2010). The effect of preferred music on mood and performance in a high-cognitive demand occupation. Journal of music therapy, 47(2), 137-154.
  8. Eysenck, H. J. (1963). Biological basis of personality. Nature, 199(4898), 1031-1034.
  9. Daoussis, L., & Mc Kelvie, S. J. (1986). Musical preferences and effects of music on a reading comprehension test for extraverts and introverts. Perceptual and motor skills, 62(1), 283-289.
  10. Furnham, A., & Bradley, A. (1997). Music while you work: The differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 11(5), 445-455.
  11. Heidbreder, E. (1926). Measuring introversion and extroversion. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 21(2), 120.
  12. Conklin, E. S. (1923). The definition of introversion, extroversion and allied concepts. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 17(4), 367.
  13. Baron, R. S. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: Progress and problems. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 1-40). Academic Press.
  14. Feng, S., D’Mello, S., & Graesser, A. C. (2013). Mind wandering while reading easy and difficult texts. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(3), 586-592.

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