When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.

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Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.

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So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.
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Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261
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ResearchBlogging.org.

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