Should you be listening to music at work?

Should you be listening to music at work?

Cranking up the tunes could be hurting your creativity, according to recent research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Researchers asked study participants to complete word tasks in which they were given three words and asked to come up with a fourth word to either place before or after to create new phrases.

Participants completed this task in different environments –a quiet background, a background with library-like noise levels and a third with music playing (either instrumental, familiar lyrics or unfamiliar).

Researchers report “strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” which leads them to believe listening to music may interrupt the verbal working memory that supports creative problem-solving.

When the lyrics of the music were familiar to the participant, his or her level of creativity was hurt regardless of whether he or she enjoyed the music.

“This study provides some support to dispute the claim many people make – that listening to music when working actually helps them to concentrate,” says Dr. Kevin Krippner, clinical coordinator of behavioral health at Advocate Medical Group in Bloomington, Ill.

“Although it may be true that listening to music while working helps the time pass more quickly and seem like less of a task, it also seems logical that listening to music provides some negative distraction to the task at hand,” Dr. Krippner says. “And because different parts of the brain are used for different types of tasks, pulling attention away from the part of the brain that maximizes focus and concentration will probably impair performance in some way.”

Going to keep your headphones in anyway?

Dr. Krippner says that if you choose to listen to music while you work, you may first want to consider if it’s more important to produce the best results or if you want your time spent working to seem less burdensome.

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  1. As much as we might like to, not all of us can work in a library. What about in an environment with the normal hubbub of a busy office? I find talking more distracting than the carefully-chosen music I use to drown it out. Ear plugs are effective too, but they can make it harder for others to interrupt me when the need arises.

  2. I agree Tom G. I have been working in office environments for 23 years and they have never been “library” like. Being forced to listen to 3 different conversations at the same time is much more distracting than listening to music.

  3. I have ADD and music is how I distract the loud parts of my brain to be able to concentrate. The harder the task is to focus on, the louder/harsher the music needs to be for me so that I can purposely mute the creative part of my brain that wants to be focusing on a thousand other things that are not the task at hand. It is also helpful for drowning out the sound of my chatty co-workers as well though. 🙂

  4. Through much self-testing of my own performance under varying conditions, I whole-heartedly agree with the research findings. I perform best in a quiet environment. If ambient sounds are too distracting, I perform best (in declining order) with 1) a mixture of white noise and rain sounds, 2) unfamiliar non-repetitive instrumental music (classical works best for me), 3) familiar instrumental music, or, lastly, music with lyrics. If I’m doing some repetitive task that a monkey could do, I occasionally go for familiar music with lyrics just to numb the pain.

  5. It’s interesting. I have been known to be a creative problem solver, and I do listen to music. My dilemma- I grew up in a home with 6 kids and 3 bedrooms. Noise all day and even when going to bed because I was 5 of 6 meaning I was sent to bed when the rest of the family was still up. So, quiet is very distracting to me. Quiet is actually noise and disturbing. The background music is helpful to me to diminish the distracting quiet.

About the Author

Holly Brenza
Holly Brenza

Holly Brenza, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator at Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her free time, Holly enjoys reading, watching the White Sox and Blackhawks and playing with her dog, Bear and cats, Demi and Elle.