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NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.D

CCSS: Writing: 1

TEKS: 6.2E, 7.2B, 7.12B, 8.2B, B.2H, B.3A

Your Brain on Music

Does listening to music help or hurt your concentration?

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT why people listen to music and how it may affect their behavior. 

The night before a big science test, you sit down for one last cram session. Before you start studying, you slip on your headphones and pull up your favorite playlist. Many people like to listen to music as they work on a big project or assignment—some even say it helps them get more done. Are they onto something?

Manuel Gonzalez often listens to music in his office. As an organizational psychologist at Baruch College in New York City, he studies how people behave while they work. So naturally, Gonzalez was curious about how cranking up the tunes affects people’s concentration and productivity. He’s just one of many scientists researching what’s going on in our brains when we press “play.”

It’s the night before a big science test. You sit down to cram one last time. Before you start studying, you slip on your headphones and open your favorite playlist. Many people like to listen to music as they work on a big project or assignment. Some even say it helps them get more done. Are they onto something?

Manuel Gonzalez often listens to music in his office. He’s an organizational psychologist at Baruch College in New York City. He studies how people behave while they work. So of course, Gonzalez was curious about the effects of music on people’s concentration and productivity. He and many other scientists are researching a question. What’s going on in our brains when we press “play”?

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RELAXING OR DISTRACTING?

Gonzalez wondered: Does music’s effect on our productivity vary based on people’s personalities, the types of music they listen to, or the kinds of tasks they’re trying to accomplish? So he and a colleague designed a study to find out.

The researchers asked volunteers to complete tasks while listening to either simple music containing just a few instruments, a more complex version of the same tune with additional instruments, or no music at all. “We had people work on two tasks—a simple one and a difficult one,” says Gonzalez. The simple task involved looking through a list and crossing off words containing the letter A. The harder task involved trying to memorize a list of word pairs and then being quizzed on it.

Gonzalez wondered how music affects our productivity. Is the result different based on people’s personalities or the types of music they listen to? What about the kinds of tasks they’re working on? So he and a colleague designed a study to find out.

The researchers asked volunteers to complete tasks while listening to music. It was either simple music with a few instruments, a complex form of the same song with more instruments, or no music at all. “We had people work on two tasks—a simple one and a difficult one,” says Gonzalez. For the simple task, they looked through a list and crossed off words containing the letter A. For the harder task, they tried to memorize a list of word pairs. Then they were quizzed on it.

For the easier task, performance was about the same whether listeners heard simple music or none—and some did better with complex music. But the tougher word-pair memory test was a different story: “For our challenging task, any music hurt performance,” says Gonzalez. “It pulled people’s attention away.”

People’s individual personalities mattered too. Before participants started the tasks, Gonzalez asked them to answer questions about whether they like a lot of external stimuli. People who said they enjoy having music or other media playing performed worse on the easy task with complex music. And on the harder task, listening to music was particularly disruptive for this group.

“We found that the relationship between work and music isn’t one-size-fits-all,” says Gonzalez. “For a simple, repetitive task, music could help. But if you’re easily distracted, or if you’re working on something that requires a lot of thought, you may be better off without it.” Gonzalez enjoys listening to heavy metal or lo-fi hip-hop while answering emails, for example. But when he’s writing up an experiment, quiet helps him focus.

For the easier task, it didn’t matter if listeners heard simple music or none. They performed about the same. Some did better with complex music. But the harder word-pair memory test was different. “For our challenging task, any music hurt performance,” says Gonzalez. “It pulled people’s attention away.”

Different personalities mattered too. Before the tasks started, Gonzalez asked volunteers some questions. Their answers showed whether they like a lot of external stimuli. Some people said they enjoy having music or other media playing. But this group performed worse on the easy task with complex music. And on the harder task, listening to music hurt their performance even more.

“We found that the relationship between work and music isn’t one-size-fits-all,” says Gonzalez. “For a simple, repetitive task, music could help. But if you’re easily distracted, or if you’re working on something that requires a lot of thought, you may be better off without it.” For example, Gonzalez listens to heavy metal or lo-fi hip-hop when he answers emails. But not when he’s writing up an experiment. Then, quiet helps him focus.

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BRAIN SCAN: During an EEG, electrodes on the scalp pick up electrical activity in the brain.

RHYTHM AND FLOW

If you want to work while listening to tunes, certain characteristics make some types of music a better choice than others, says Kevin Woods. He’s an auditory neuroscientist who studies how sound affects the brain. He’s also the director of science for Brain.fm, an app that makes music designed to help people focus. “You want music with very few salient events, things that grab your attention,” says Woods. “That includes vocals, sudden instrument entrances, and bright, high-frequency sounds.”

Most pop music is full of those characteristics, though. “It’s designed to grab your attention. That’s important to remember when trying to get work done,” says Woods. Music that helps maintain focus, on the other hand, usually features deeper tones, smooth transitions, and instrumentals with few or no words. Jazz, classical, or soundtracks from movies or video games might fit the bill. A genre known as chillhop, featuring mellow hip-hop beats, has exploded in popularity on YouTube for work and study.

What if you want to work while listening to tunes? Music with certain qualities is a better choice than others, says Kevin Woods. He’s an auditory neuroscientist, and he studies how sound affects the brain. He’s also the director of science for Brain.fm. This app makes music to help people focus. “You want music with very few salient events, things that grab your attention,” says Woods. “That includes vocals, sudden instrument entrances, and bright, high-frequency sounds.”

But most pop music is full of those qualities. “It’s designed to grab your attention. That’s important to remember when trying to get work done,” says Woods. Instead, choose music that helps you focus. It usually has deeper tones, smooth transitions, and instrumentals with few or no words. Jazz, classical, or soundtracks from movies or video games might work. Chillhop is a type of music with mellow hip-hop beats. On YouTube, it’s become extremely popular for work and study.

Brain.fm’s composers apply these concepts to create the app’s specialized music. They come up with the basic melodies. Then a computer program arranges those themes into longer pieces. Longer is better because switching from one track to the next can be jarring. The program also reduces distracting elements within songs and adds features designed to promote a phenomenon called entrainment. That’s when patterns of electrical activity in the brain sync up with something in a person’s environment, like sounds. Some research suggests that getting the brain “in the zone” this way can improve performance on certain tasks.

Brain.fm’s composers use these ideas to create the app’s music. They write the basic melodies. Then a computer program arranges those melodies into longer pieces. Longer is better, because switching from one track to the next can be jarring. The program also reduces distracting elements in songs. And it adds features that promote entrainment. That’s when patterns of electrical activity in your brain sync up with something around you, like sounds. In other words, your brain gets “in the zone.” Some research suggests that this can improve performance on certain tasks.

FINE-TUNING

Before releasing a piece of music, Brain.fm runs tests in labs and online to learn whether it helps people focus. One test involves having listeners press a button anytime a number appears on a screen—except a specific number they’ve been told to skip. “It’s like a boring video game” says Woods. “People’s minds wander, and they make errors.” Brain.fm compares people’s performance while listening to the company’s music, other music, and no music.

Before they release a piece of music, Brain.fm runs tests in labs and online. The company wants to learn if the music helps people focus. For one test, listeners press a button anytime a number appears on a screen. But they’re told to skip a certain number. “It’s like a boring video game,” says Woods. “People’s minds wander, and they make errors.” People take the test while listening to the company’s music, other music, and no music. Then Brain.fm compares their performance.

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Teens say listening to music during schoolwork aids concentration, blocks unwanted noise, and helps pass the time.

Brain.fm also uses a technique called electroencephalography [ee-LEK-troh-en- SEF-uh-LAHG-ruh-fee] (EEG), which detects electrical activity in the brain, to compare their music with other types (see Music in Action). “We see brain activity syncing up to our music more than any other music we can find,” says Woods. That happens not only in the brain’s auditory cortex, which processes sound, but in other regions involved in thought and behavior (see The Musical Brain). These tests suggest that the app improves listeners’ task performance by altering brain rhythms.

Many specifics of when and how to use music most effectively remain unknown. Your assignments are probably very different from the word tests in Gonzalez’s study or the button-pushing video game used to hone Brain.fm tunes. Experiments can help scientists understand trends in people’s responses to music. But it may come down to individual preferences and discovering what’s best for you. For some people, music and work just don’t mix. In surveys, about a third of people say they prefer to work in silence. If that’s you, says Woods, trust your instincts: There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some peace and quiet.

Brain.fm also uses a test called electroencephalography [ee-LEK-troh-en-SEF-uh-LAHG-ruh-fee] (EEG). It detects electrical activity in the brain. With it, the company compares its music and other types (see Music in Action). “We see brain activity syncing up to our music more than any other music we can find,” says Woods. That happens in the brain’s auditory cortex, which processes sound. But it also happens in other areas involved in thought and behavior (see The Musical Brain). These tests suggest that the app improves listeners’ task performance by changing brain rhythms.

When and how can we use music to get the best results? Much remains unknown. Your assignments are probably very different from the word tests in Gonzalez’s study or Brain.fm’s button-pushing video game. Experiments can help scientists understand trends in people’s responses to music. But it may come down to each person’s taste and finding what’s best for you. For some people, music and work just don’t mix. In surveys, about a third of people say they prefer to work in silence. If that’s you, says Woods, trust your gut. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some peace and quiet. 

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