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Music listening at work: beneficial or distracting?

Some argue that multi-tasking is ruining our brains. The idea is that our brains are changing because we have to multi-task to a greater extent today, given the access to new technology in our society (according to a Professor Clifford Nass at Stanford University). This research has been interpreted to suggest that listening to music at work can be detrimental. Especially for music with lyrics.

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The results in this study seem to suggest that those who are heavy multi-taskers actually perform worse on a test of tasks-switching ability, which could have to do with a reduced ability to filter out interference.

But how does this actually sit with what we know about music listening at work? Is it true that music listening while working could be detrimental, and that such ‘multi-tasking’ behaviour should not be encouraged in workplaces?

It is certainly true that employees can find music distracting, and feel that it hinders their task performance. However, many employees find music beneficial to their concentration. So what factors could influence whether music is perceived as distracting or not? In my research into music listening at work, I have identified a number of factors:

Musical structure. More complex musical structure could be more distracting. This means that it is not necessarily instrumental vs vocal music that influences whether music is distracting or not, but rather how the music is constructed.

Lyrics. Of course, lyrics could be distracting. Especially if they trigger thoughts and associations, although this does not necessarily happen with all lyrics.

Musical training. Those with musical training may be more likely to listen more closely to the musical structure, timbre, rhythm and so on, and may find that this detracts from their tasks at hand.

Other associations. For example, some employees associate music with leisure, rather than with work, and could therefore get distracted from work.

Previous listening habits. This is a very important factor. If employees are used to listening to music while working, they will feel less distracted. And vice versa.

Work-related interruptions. When employees are at work, work-related tasks and conversations are most often prioritised, whereas the music is subordinate. This is quite obvious, as employees are mainly in the office to work – not to listen to music. So when work-related interruptions occur, music can become distracting. However, it is also worth noticing how many listeners at work – on the other hand – use music to manage interruptions at work.

Task complexity. If an employee is unfamiliar with the task, they are more likely to perceive the music as distracting, whereas if the task is familiar they will not get distracted as easily.

Sense of control. When employees are forced to listen to music, the music will often feel distracting and annoying. For example, if a colleague has to listen to another colleague’s music through loudspeakers and has no choice of what kind of music it is, how long they want to listen, the volume and so on, they can find the music distracting. When employees can decide for themselves if they want to listen, and if so – how and to what, they are more likely to find music beneficial.

These are just some of the many factors that seem to play a part in whether music listening can be distracting or not. It is tempting to try and simplify arguments and nail down quick explanations, such as “instrumental/classical music is better for concentration than vocal/pop music”. However, we need to resist such quick analyses, and instead look also at the whole context in which the listening takes place. It is interesting to note that many laboratory-based studies of the effects of music on task performance find distracting effects, and that the researchers often seem to choose the music for the participants – without even reflecting on the matter. Would the results look different if the participants could choose the music they wanted?

For more literature on music and the effects of self-selection and control:

Batt-Rawden, K., & DeNora, T. (2005). Music and informal learning in everyday life. Music Education Research, 7(3), 289-304.

Burns, J., Labbé, E., Williams, K., & McCall, J. (1999). Perceived and physiological indicators of relaxation: as different as Mozart and Alice in Chains. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 24(3), 197- 202.

Greasley, A. E. (2008). Engagement with music in everyday life: an in-depth study ofadults’ musical preferences and listening behaviours. PhD thesis, Keele University, Stoke-on-Trent.

Haake, A.B. (2011) Individual music listening in workplace settings: an exploratory survey of offices in the UK. Musicae Scientiae, 15 (1)

Haake, A.B. (2010). Music listening in UK offices: Balancing internal needs and external considerations. Doctoral thesis. Music Department, University of Sheffield, UK.

MacDonald, R. (2006). An investigation of the effects of post-operative music listening in hospital settings. Paper presented at the 9th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, University of Bologna, Italy, 22-26 August.

Mitchell, L. A., MacDonald, R. A. R., & Brodie, E. E. (2006). A comparison of the effects of preferred music, arithmetic and humour on cold pressor pain. European Journal of Pain, 10(4), 343-351.

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