Listening to Music While You Work from Home? Maybe You Shouldn’t


Do you listen to music while working from home? Depending on the type of work you’re doing, you might be better off without the soundtrack, according to a new study. 

If it’s intellectually demanding work — writing a paper or doing your taxes — music might impede your concentration. But when it comes to household chores and other mindless tasks, researchers say, the tunes might actually give you a boost.

The study, co-authored by Ph.D. student Manuel F. Gonzalez (The Graduate Center, Baruch College), appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

There are plenty of theories out there on how music affects focus and performance. The “Mozart effect,” for example, was a controversial notion that claimed listening to Mozart boosts intelligence, especially in young children. Playlists of music to study by also abound. But much of the research on this question has been limited to specific contexts or tasks like reading or mathematics, the authors say. In the new study, the authors wanted to find a framework that can be used more broadly. 

Study participants had to perform either a simple, repetitive task, or a more complex task that required memorization and recall. Some listened to music while others had silence. The music was loud or soft, and was either simple or more complex, with more instruments or variations in melody.

The big finding here: Those without any music at all performed best on the complicated task. 

But people doing the easy task performed better with complex music than the ones who had no music or simple music. Why? An easy task — let’s say, sorting laundry or chopping vegetables — might not require much brainpower and could leave room for you to get sidetracked, the authors propose. In that case, exciting music could take up those leftover mental resources and prevent you from getting off-task. But when a difficult task already calls for most of your focus, any music will just make things harder.

These results also depend on individual personalities, the study found. Some people naturally pay closer attention to the sights and sounds around them. For this type of person, even quiet, simple music might be too much when trying to do a difficult task.

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Explore This Work

More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied , 2019

Work By

Manuel F. Gonzalez (Ph.D. candidate, Industrial-organizational psychology) | Profile 1