Music at work: distracting or beneficial?

I recently read a piece of research, which argues that multi-tasking is ruining our brains. The idea is that our brains are changing because we have to multi-task to a greater extent today, with all new technology etc. This is according to a Professor Clifford Nass, at Stanford University, and his research has been interpreted to suggest that listening to music at work can be detrimental.

The results in this study seem to suggest that those who are heavy multi-taskers actually perform worse on a test of tasks-switching ability, which could have to do with a reduced ability to filter out interference.

But how does this actually sit with what we know about music listening at work? Is it true that music listening while working could be detrimental, and that such ‘multi-tasking’ behaviour should not be encouraged in workplaces?

It is certainly true that employees can find music distracting, and feel that it hinders their task performance. However, many employees find music beneficial to their concentration. So what factors could influence whether music is perceived as distracting or not? It could be due to a number of different factors, as participants in my studies indicated:

Musical structure. More complex musical structure could be more distracting. This means that it is not necessarily instrumental vs vocal music that influences whether music is distracting or not, but rather how the music is constructed.

Lyrics. Of course, lyrics could be distracting. Especially if they trigger thoughts and associations, although this does not happen with all lyrics do.

Musical training. Those with musical training may be more likely to listen more closely to the musical structure, timbre, rhythm and so on.

Other associations. For example, some employees associate music with leisure, rather than with work, and could therefore get distracted.

Previous listening habits. This is a very important factor. If employees are used to listening to music while working, they will feel less distracted. And vice versa.

Work-related interruptions. When employees are at work, work-related tasks and conversations are most often prioritised, whereas the music is subordinate. This is quite obvious, as employees are in the office to work – not to listen to music. So when work-related interruptions occur, music can become distracting. However, it is also worth noticing how many listeners at work also – on the other hand – use music to manage interruptions at work!

Task complexity. If an employee is unfamiliar with the task, they are more likely to perceive the music as distracting. This is of course very individual!

Sense of control. When employees are forced to listen to music, the music will often feel distracting and annoying. When employees can decide for themselves if they want to listen, and if so – how and to what, they are more likely to find music beneficial.

These are just some of the many factors that seem to play a part in whether music listening can be distracting or not. It is tempting to try and simplify arguments and nail down quick explanations, such as “instrumental/classical music is better for concentration than vocal/pop music”. However, we need to resist such quick analyses, and instead look also at the whole context in which the listening takes place. It is interesting to note that many laboratory-based studies of the effects of music on task performance find distracting effects, and that the researchers often seem to choose the music for the participants – without even reflecting on the matter. Would the results look different if the participants could choose the music they wanted?

For more literature on music and the effects of self-selection and control:

Batt-Rawden, K., & DeNora, T. (2005). Music and informal learning in everyday life. Music Education Research, 7(3), 289-304.

Burns, J., Labbé, E., Williams, K., & McCall, J. (1999). Perceived and physiological indicators of relaxation: as different as Mozart and Alice in Chains. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 24(3), 197- 202.

Greasley, A. E. (2008). Engagement with music in everyday life: an in-depth study ofadults’ musical preferences and listening behaviours. PhD thesis, Keele University, Stoke-on-Trent.

MacDonald, R. (2006). An investigation of the effects of post-operative music listening in hospital settings. Paper presented at the 9th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, University of Bologna, Italy, 22-26 August.

Mitchell, L. A., MacDonald, R. A. R., & Brodie, E. E. (2006). A comparison of the effects of preferred music, arithmetic and humour on cold pressor pain. European Journal of Pain, 10(4), 343-351.


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5 Responses to Music at work: distracting or beneficial?

  1. annie cumming says:

    i think this research is very beneficial to kids. im doing a project on this study and i think i got a lot of great info on it. Thanks for the help:)

  2. Adrian V. says:

    As someone with ADHD, I find music at work extremely distracting because I cannot choose where my attention goes all the time. I attempt to focus on a task at hand, and I’m inevitably pulled to other people’s music, especially if it’s not the type of music I like or I can only faintly hear it. It’s extremely frustrating when it happens. I can listen to my own MP3’s when or if I want, and I don’t suffer as much distraction. It’s only a matter of time that music should be outlawed in the workplace (unless listeners use ear buds and keep it to themselves) because the frustration, distraction, and loss of productivity it causes adults with ADD / ADHD is discrimination and acting against consideration for their impairment.

    • anneli says:

      Hello Adrian, thanks for your comments. I think you sum up exactly why it is so important to be able to have choice – choice when to listen, how to listen, and what to listen to – and how detrimental it can be if you don’t. And I agree that no one should be subjected to music at work if they don’t want to, there has to be technical solutions to make sure people are not distracted by it. But I think it would be worth developing technical solutions that could somehow enable people to listen at work, without distracting each other. Ear buds is one way, like you mentioned, but that can sometimes leave people a bit isolated. Thanks again /anneli

  3. Maureen says:

    Thank you so much! I needed this support!

  4. Ringo says:

    This is the best article/website/study I have ever seen about music at workplace.

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