CityPress - - Voices & Careers - . Nick Per­ham is se­nior lec­turer in psy­chol­ogy at Cardiff Metropoli­tan Uni­ver­sity This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in

Many of us lis­ten to mu­sic while we work, think­ing it will help us con­cen­trate on the task at hand. Re­cent re­search has found that mu­sic can have ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects on cre­ativ­ity. When it comes to other ar­eas of per­for­mance, how­ever, the im­pact of back­ground mu­sic is more com­pli­cated.

The as­sump­tion that lis­ten­ing to mu­sic when work­ing is ben­e­fi­cial to out­put prob­a­bly has its roots in the so-called Mozart ef­fect, which gained wide me­dia at­ten­tion in the early 1990s. Put sim­ply, this is the find­ing that spa­tial ro­ta­tion per­for­mance (men­tally ro­tat­ing a three­d­i­men­sional shape to de­ter­mine whether it matches an­other) is increased im­me­di­ately af­ter lis­ten­ing to Mozart, com­pared to re­lax­ation in­struc­tions or no sound at all. Such was the at­ten­tion that this find­ing gar­nered that the then US gover­nor of Ge­or­gia, Zell Miller, pro­posed giv­ing free cas­settes or CDs of Mozart’s mu­sic to prospec­tive par­ents.

Sub­se­quent stud­ies have cast doubt on the ne­ces­sity of Mozart’s mu­sic to pro­duce this ef­fect – a “Schu­bert ef­fect”, a “Blur ef­fect” and even a “Stephen King ef­fect” (his au­dio­book rather than his singing) have all been ob­served. In ad­di­tion, mu­si­cians could show the ef­fect purely by imag­in­ing the mu­sic rather than ac­tu­ally lis­ten­ing to it.

Re­searchers then sug­gested that the Mozart ef­fect was not due to his mu­sic as such, but rather to peo­ple’s op­ti­mum lev­els of mood and arousal. And so it be­came the “mood and arousal ef­fect”.

Un­for­tu­nately, the sit­u­a­tions in which most mood and arousal ef­fects are ob­served are slightly un­re­al­is­tic. Do we re­ally sit and lis­ten to mu­sic, switch it off, and then en­gage in our work in si­lence? More likely is that we work with our favourite tunes play­ing in the back­ground.

How sound af­fects per­for­mance has been the topic of lab­o­ra­tory re­search for over 40 years, and is ob­served through a phe­nom­e­non called the ir­rel­e­vant sound ef­fect. Ba­si­cally, this means that per­for­mance is poorer when a task is un­der­taken in the pres­ence of back­ground sound (ir­rel­e­vant sound that you are ig­nor­ing), in com­par­i­son to quiet.

To study ir­rel­e­vant sound ef­fect, par­tic­i­pants are asked to com­plete a sim­ple task which re­quires them to re­call a se­ries of num­bers or let­ters in the or­der in which they saw them – sim­i­lar to try­ing to mem­o­rise a tele­phone num­ber when you can’t write it down. In gen­eral, peo­ple achieve this by re­hears­ing the items ei­ther aloud or un­der their breath. The tricky thing is be­ing able to do this while ig­nor­ing any back­ground noise.

Two key char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ir­rel­e­vant sound ef­fect are re­quired for its ob­ser­va­tion. First, the task must re­quire the per­son to use their re­hearsal abil­i­ties, and sec­ond, the sound must con­tain acous­ti­cal vari­a­tion – for ex­am­ple, sounds such as “n, r, p” as op­posed to “c, c, c”. Where the sound does not vary much acous­ti­cally, per­for­mance of the task is much closer to that ob­served in quiet con­di­tions. In­ter­est­ingly, it does not mat­ter whether the per­son likes the sound or not.

Per­for­mance is equally as poor whether the back­ground sound is mu­sic the per­son likes or dis­likes.

The ir­rel­e­vant sound ef­fect it­self comes from at­tempt­ing to process two sources of or­dered in­for­ma­tion at the same time – one from the task and one from the sound. Un­for­tu­nately, only the for­mer is re­quired to suc­cess­fully per­form the se­rial re­call task. The ef­fort ex­pended in en­sur­ing that ir­rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion from the sound is not pro­cessed ac­tu­ally im­pedes this abil­ity.

A sim­i­lar con­flict is seen when read­ing while in the pres­ence of lyri­cal mu­sic. In this sit­u­a­tion, the two sources of words – from the task and the sound – are in con­flict. The sub­se­quent cost is poorer per­for­mance of the task in the pres­ence of mu­sic with lyrics.

What this all means is that whether hav­ing mu­sic play­ing in the back­ground helps or hin­ders per­for­mance de­pends on the task and on the type of mu­sic, and only un­der­stand­ing this re­la­tion­ship will help peo­ple max­imise their pro­duc­tiv­ity. If the task re­quires cre­ativ­ity or some el­e­ment of men­tal ro­ta­tion then lis­ten­ing to mu­sic one likes can in­crease per­for­mance.

In con­trast, if the task re­quires one to re­hearse in­for­ma­tion in or­der, then quiet is best, or, in the case of read­ing com­pre­hen­sion, quiet or in­stru­men­tal mu­sic.

One promis­ing area of the im­pact of mu­sic on cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties stems from learn­ing to play a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment. Stud­ies show that chil­dren who are be­ing mu­si­cally trained im­prove their in­tel­lec­tual abil­i­ties. How­ever, the rea­sons be­hind this are, at present, un­known and likely to be com­plex. It may not be the mu­sic per se that pro­duces this ef­fect, but more the ac­tiv­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with study­ing mu­sic, such as con­cen­tra­tion, re­peated prac­tice, lessons and home­work.

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