Question of the Week

Why can't I concentrate if I can hear music?

Sun, 10th Aug 2014

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Question

Neil S. Briscoe asked:

Right now, I'm listening to music, but that's OK because I finished work hours ago. I find that I can't work with music playing as all my attention is on the music and it distracts me.

 

On the other hand, I have friends who can't work unless they have music, at loud volume, blasting through their skulls via their head phones. So why should there be such a difference?

 

I should point out, I'm over 50, the people with the phones are younger, so is it merely age?

 

Answer

Ian -   Itís not just your age that will affect this.  You're personality, musical preference, the particular task, your personal experiences or how musical you are, all probably have an effect on how much music can distract you.  When we encounter music in the background as opposed to actively listening to it, it may affect us in two ways. 

It may affect our emotional state positively or negatively, helping us to work better or causing us to work worse, or it may affect our concentration by inadvertently capturing our attention, diverting it away from the task at hand.  On the other hand, it may have no effect at all.  A group of German researchers looked at the many studies that have been done and their report of that, background music disturbs the reading process with some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact and emotional reactions and improved achievement in sports.

But as they point out, itís very difficult to compare results across studies because the methods and the experimental participants varied so much from study to study.  Itís reasonable to think that for some people, background music provides a means of giving a self-selected sonic texture to their surroundings, marking off a private space within which they can focus on what theyíre doing.  Without background music, these people would be more easily distracted from the tasks that they're undertaking. 

For other people, background music itself would constitute too much of a distraction, diverting attention away from the task at hand. For both types of people however, the important factor would be whether or not they liked and selected the music.  Music that is present without your consent is always more like it cause negative effects and impact on your performance on the task at hand.  In other words, if your neighbour is playing music that you donít like, and you have no immediate influence over them, itís much more like they destroy your ability to do your work than if you yourself have chosen the music thatís playing.

 

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I don't think it's age but more individually your focusing skills. Some people can direct their attention
to two or three different activities like they can watch tv, talk with someone and watch their kid at
the same time while others can just focus on one thing. My Mom is example of the latter. She can
just do one thing a time while my Dad can easily work listening to music. Actually I work with my headphones
and favorite music on too. Don't worry about that :) Sheppie, Thu, 14th Aug 2014

I find it very distracting to have a music background to so many things one hears in the media - including podcasts. People giving lectures in a school or university setting don't have a music background all the time - and yet even on serious programmes where facts are being given or announcements being made some annoying noise in the background seems to be there. Even on The NS podcasts there has been music while someone talks about latest discoveries etc. which makes it difficult to focus on the material especially if it is technical or has new vocabulary or describes complex processes. I have written to the NS about this before. Surely music is largely processed or responded to by a different area of the brain than that analyzing verbal messages  and this is one reason why the music is distracting.Sometimes I think people don't really 'listen' to the music or give full attention to any tasks where more than one is being 'attended 'to. Depends on the kind of music/content of other tasks etc. too I suppose. annie123, Sun, 31st Aug 2014

I need quiet and calming music, nothing crazy or too lyrical. At work I listen to ambient or jazz on a really low volume. I'm still experimenting, but I think overall for me it is soft/slow/low music or no music at all. I can't listen with headphones, it breaks me entirely. XXD, Fri, 14th Nov 2014

As an amateur musician, I am always analysing music and trying to work out the chord progressions. So background music that I like grabs my attention so much, that I stop to listen to it. But if I hate the music, I am driven mad and have to get away. And why do so many people have headphones on when jogging? I like to hear the outside world and talk to people I meet - less of a pleasure these days. Brian Farley, Mon, 12th Jan 2015

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