Music plays an important role in our life. It influences our emotions, eases stress and tension, and has therapeutic value. For example, listening to music before a medical procedure, such as a colonoscopy, reduces anxiety.
One of the questions people often ask is, “How does music influence our performance?” To answer this question, we have to distinguish between listening to music prior to work or when we take a break, and listening to music while we are working, as background music.
Music arouses different emotions that have a different influence on our cognitive performance. Studies show that participants who listened for ten minutes to a fast and happy Mozart sonata before they were given a cognitive task performed better than those who did not listen to music or listened to a sad and slow music. This was called the Mozart effect. Most researchers believe that music influences our emotions, which influence our cognitive performance.
So before starting to work on a task that demands analytic and or/creative thinking, take a break, and listen to happy music that you like.
As for background music, the findings are inconsistent. Some studies found that it improved performance, while others found that background music had a negative effect on various memory and reading tasks.
These inconsistent findings are not surprising. To evaluate the influence of music on our performance, we have to take into consideration many factors. First, it depends on the type of work we are doing. Some tasks are more complicated, some demand attention and memory, some demand analytic and/or creative thinking, and some are repetitive and boring. We also have to take into consideration the various characteristics of music such as genre (pop, classical, heavy metal, etc.), tempo, volume, and likability.
Here are a few general guidelines:
The type of music matters. For example, studies showed that listening to fast and loud music, such as hip-hop, while working had a negative influence on performance in reading comprehension. In contrast, listening to classical music that was relatively quiet and slow did not have a negative effect on performance. Other studies showed that listening to happy music enhanced creative ideas.
When you listen matters. The same type of music that enhances our performance when we listen to it before we start working can have a negative influence on our performance if you listen to it while working.
Studies show that listening to uplifting music or any music that we like before we start working often has a positive effect on our performance. In contrast, listening to music that we like while we are working has a negative effect on our performance. These findings make sense. When we listen to music that we like, it lifts our mood. If that happens before we start working, it has a positive effect on our performance. However, when we listen to the same music while we are working, even though it enhances our mood and arousal, it also distracts us from focusing on our work tasks, which of course has a negative influence on our performance. Listening to music we don’t like during work has a similar effect; it disturbs our performance.
So, if you do want to have background music while you are working, it should be quiet music that you feel neutral about, and don’t especially like or dislike.
The type of task matters. Background music that is especially fast and loud or that we like has a negative influence on reading and memory tasks, but it has a positive effect on performance in sports and on physical work. Studies show that music had a positive effect when we work out, and people worked harder and longer when they listened to music with a fast tempo.
To sum up, although there is no simple answer regarding the influence of music on our work, studies clearly show that listening to music before you start working, or during a break, enhances performance. As for background music, that depends on the task and on the type of music.