A large number of researchers believe that, for people of any age, listening to music while performing tasks at home, work, and school can have a beneficial effect on learning, productivity, and satisfaction. Here are a few facts about this effect:
1. Music improves productivity when working on repetitive tasks.
One team at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that playing background music while engaging in repetitive tasks—think spreadsheets, counting objects, and reading email—not only makes time go by more pleasantly, it serves to boost productivity. The authors of the study note that this held true for their test subjects even when they were in the midst of a considerable amount of ambient industrial noise.
2. Music is most effective when it is considered pleasant or neutral by the listener.
A University of Miami music therapy professor discovered that when people hear music that they personally find enjoyable, they tend to start feeling better. Her test subjects—people who worked in information technology—reported finishing their assignments more quickly when listening to music they liked. Additionally, she discovered that the elevation in mood her subjects experienced propelled them on to come up with better ideas and insights related to their tasks.
She concluded that personal choice regarding musical selections is extremely important to the effectiveness of that music in heightening mood and productivity. She went on to observe that over-stressed individuals tend to come to over-hasty conclusions about work tasks. On the other hand, individuals who were able to select their own music could see multiple possible solutions to a problem.
Some investigators have discovered, however, that music we neither strongly like, nor strongly dislike, may be best for workplace productivity. A group of Taiwanese researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University found that extreme reactions—positive and negative—to music made it more difficult to maintain concentration.
3. Music triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.
Biology tells us that the act of listening to music we enjoy releases hormones called dopamine into the brain’s reward center. This is the same reaction we experience when we look at a beautiful scene, drink in the scent of a rose, or eat a delicious meal. One physician at the Mayo Clinic who has studied the way people at work gain focus from listening to music notes that it takes less than an hour a day to achieve the mood-lifting and mind-opening benefits.
4. Music is most effective at increasing productivity when it is instrumental.
One point seems to be consistent across a variety of research studies: the best music for concentration and productivity is wordless. Words that we can understand tend to distract the brain, since they pull us in the direction of trying to make sense of them.
One study found that almost half of office employees in the test group were distracted by human speech. Trying to tune out the background noise of others’ voices won’t work if the music has lyrics. It will merely cause the brain to shift its focus.
5. The tempo of Baroque music may facilitate concentration and learning.
The tempo of a piece of music has a strong impact on how well it facilitates concentration. Numerous studies have shown that music from the Baroque period in particular—think Bach, Vivaldi, Georg Telemann, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Philippe Rameau—aids learning and concentration, which contributes to longer-term retention of new information.
In fact, authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder wrote the book Superlearning 2000, an update to their earlier title Superlearning, to further outline exactly how to use the steady, even beats of Baroque music to learn foreign languages, new vocabulary, and a host of other facts, figures, and real-world skills. Fans of the Super-Learning books say that the techniques and helpful resources the authors offer have helped them speed up their learning, recall much more of what they have read, and fully engage both hemispheres of their brains.
Ostrander and Schroeder, who began putting the book together in the 1970s, drew on then-revolutionary research by top psychologists and neurologists. These scientists had discovered that listening to Baroque music in particular was capable of increasing the powers of a person’s concentration and memory. They posited that this was the result of the regular mathematical formulas that lie at the heart of the Baroque tempo.
6. Baroque music may facilitate the production of alpha waves in the brain.
The 50- to 80-beat-per-minute tempo of Baroque, researchers have learned, is comparable to an adult’s resting heart rate. This makes it ideal for stimulating the production of alpha waves in the brain. These alpha waves are known for inducing a mood of deep but focused relaxation.
When human beings are in an alpha state—with their brain waves’ frequency measuring from 9 to 14 hertz, or cycles per second—they are far from being passive or inattentive. A person in an alpha state is calm but alert, and is extremely receptive to taking in and processing new information.
Most of our daily lives are spent in the active beta state, with brain waves of between 15 and 40 cycles per second. This means the alpha state represents a significant reduction in our normal rhythms, giving us more time and space to notice things we may not have noticed before.