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

10 August 2014

Question

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 - It's 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, it's very difficult to compare results across studies because the methods and the experimental participants varied so much from study to study. It's 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 they're 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 don't like, and you have no immediate influence over them, it's much more like they destroy your ability to do your work than if you yourself have chosen the music that's playing.

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