Many people listen to music while they’re carrying out a task, whether they’re studying for an exam, driving a vehicle or even reading a book. Many of these people argue that background music helps them focus.
Why, though? When you think about it, that doesn’t make much sense. Why would having two things to concentrate on make you more focused, not less?
Some people even go so far as to say that not having music on is more distracting. So what’s going on there?
It’s not clear why the brain likes music so much in the first place, although it clearly does. Interestingly, there’s a specific spectrum of musical properties that the brain prefers.
Experiments by Maria Witek and colleagues reveal that there needs to be a medium level of syncopation in music to elicit a pleasure response and associated body movement in individuals.
What this means in plain English is: music needs to be funky, but not too funky, for people to like it enough to make them want to dance.
Your own experience will probably back this up. Simple, monotonous beats, like listening to a metronome, aren’t really entertaining. They have low levels of syncopation and certainly don’t make you want to dance.
In contrast, chaotic and unpredictable music, like free jazz, has high levels of syncopation, can be extremely off-putting and rarely, if ever, entices people to dance.
Why would music help us concentrate, though? One argument is to do with attention.
For all its amazing abilities, the brain hasn’t really evolved to take in abstract information or spend prolonged periods thinking about one thing.
We seem to have two attention systems: a conscious one that enables us to direct our focus towards things we know we want to concentrate on and an unconscious one that shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant.
The unconscious one is simpler, more fundamental, and linked to emotional processing rather than higher reasoning. It also operates faster.
So when you hear a noise when you’re alone at home, you’re paying attention to it long before you’re able to work out what it might have been. You can’t help it.
However, it’s not just a matter of providing any old background noise to keep distractions at bay.
A lot of companies have tried using pink noise – a less invasive version of white noise – broadcasting it around the workplace to reduce distractions and boost productivity.
But views on the effectiveness of this approach are mixed at best.
While the nature and style of the music can cause specific responses in the brain, some studies suggest that it really is down to personal preference.
Music you like increases focus, while music you don’t impedes it. Given the extreme variation in musical preferences from person to person, exposing your workforce or classroom to a single type of music would obviously end up with mixed results.
Music also has a big impact on mood – truly bleak music could sap your enthusiasm for your task. Something else to look out for is music with catchy lyrics.
Musical pieces without words might be better working companions, as human speech and vocalization is something our brains pay particular attention to.
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