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A Rutgers researcher offers insight into the impact of music while we work

Will listening to music while trying to work affect your performance? Rutgers psychology professor Jack Aiello says the answer is not the same for everyone.

Aiello, who has researched how music affects the performance of cognitive work, says it depends on the music, task and individual personality. He recommends that if you’re telecommuting during the coronavirus pandemic, you might think twice before turning on the tunes at home.

How can music affect our task performance?

Broadly speaking, music, regardless of complexity or volume, can affect a person’s ability to perform a complex task such as analysis or problem solving. Demanding tasks require more brainpower. Therefore, listening to music can overstimulate our mental resources and distract us when overwhelmed. 

On the other hand, simple tasks – something done every day such as inputting data or sorting emails – typically underutilizes a person’s attentional resources or “mental bandwidth.” When paired with music, the sound can enhance performance by occupying the leftover attention space and minimize the risk of drifting off during a routine task.

How does personality relate to music distraction?

Music affects task performance differently depending on whether a person feels their work is providing them enough stimulation – if a person is more or less prone to boredom. People who are prone to boredom have a tendency to pay greater attention to sights and sounds happening around them.

If you are someone who tends to get bored easily, have preferences for external stimulation, or you’re an extrovert, you may want to forgo complex music a variety of instruments, frequently changing melodies and a faster tempo when working on a difficult task. Since these tasks serve as sufficient stimulation and take up all mental resources, music becomes more of a distraction. When it comes to simpler tasks, people who are less prone to boredom perform better while listening to complex music than simple music or no music. 

What about types of music?

Complex music can enhance simple task performance for all personalities. These sounds provide enough distraction to stop a person’s mind from wandering during a routine task, thus boosting their focus and performance. Additionally, complex or loud music can cause us to narrow our attention, allowing the person performing the task to block out irrelevant task cues. 

So, should workers listen to music as they work from home?

Keeping the task in mind and being aware of personality is crucial. The bottom line is that it can be helpful to put on some music when you work on something that you find relatively straightforward and repetitive. However, music can hurt when a task requires your full attention, so it’s probably best to turn off when it’s time to write or problem solve.