Many people listen to some kind of music while working, or perhaps to some kind of colored noise. Many people will swear that this works. There are multiple ways it can work:
- Increases work performance.
- Increase work enjoyment (positive mood effect).
- Makes work seem to go faster (time experience effect).
They are not necessarily causally independent paths. Perhaps (2) causes (3). Perhaps (2) causes lower (3) due to distraction.
Anecdotally, we would probably say that (1) is likely to be true, especially when the music is synchronized to bodily movements. Otherwise, why would the military bother with march music? Still, just because it works with physical labor, does not mean it works with mental labor too.
What science has been done so far?
Given that hundreds of millions of people probably use music while working, it would seem like an obvious thing to research. But when I looked, I only found a few studies. So, this topic goes on the list of things that are obvious to research and has potentially large practical applications, but which scientists for some reason have not researched. Instead they wasted lots of time and money studying irreproducible fads.
But I was able to find some studies:
- Small (N=56) study of computer programmers. “Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working. Evidence is provided of the presence of a learning curve in the use of music for positive mood alteration.”
- Small (N=88) study examine if pop music interacts with extraversion for mental work performance. “After a 6-minute interval the introverts who had memorized the objects in the presence of the pop music had a significantly lower recall than the extraverts in the same condition and the introverts who had observed them in silence. The introverts who completed a reading comprehension task when music was being played also performed significantly less well than these two groups.” Another small (N=76) study by the same authors on a similar topic.
- Four very small (N=5-8) within-subject experiments examining the effect of music types on work performance on menial labor/factory work. “Clearly, from all four experiments, music can influence in a positive way the efficiency of operative carrying out short cycle repetitive tasks. Even in the fourth experiment an increase of 7.4%, although modest in itself, is significant in that the subjects were already achieving creditable detection scores in their normal working environment by virtue of their experience in the job. Moreover, on one type of fault no further improvement was possible, for the use of the music brought the fault detection up to 100%.”
- Small study (N=64) examining synchronous vs. asynchronous music and physical tasks. “A Sex by Conditions repeated-measures ANOVA indicated that music, particularly if synchronized to physical movement, had a positive effect on the ability to endure the task and that male subjects endured longer than female subjects.”
- Very small (N=7-28?), old study examining reading performance as the outcome and examining whether cognitive ability interacts with music as a distractor. “The music was distracting and lowered reading-test performance. The less able Ss were more adversely affected than the bright Ss. The 2 groups of 7 controls each who heard no music outperformed the experimental Ss.”
- Very small study (N=10) examining whether background music could improve the math performance of students with behavioral problems. “There was a significant improvement in behaviour and mathematics performance for all the children. The effects were particularly marked for those whose problems were related to constant stimulus-seeking and over-activity. Improvements were also observed in improved co-operation and a reduction in aggression during the lessons immediately following the study.”. This doesn’t seem to even have a control group, so finding is consistent with Hawthorne effect.
This is the relevant studies on the first two pages on Google Scholar. So, nothing very convincing. It looks like yet another fragmented, probably publication bias-ridden literature of little practical use. Science will have to mostly start over and begin with larger, pre-registered studies with public data. Preferably, these should also be replicated across research teams.
What would I do?
Suppose that someone gave me some students/people to command and some money, what would I do?
Something like this:
- Pre-register analyses so others can believe that didn’t cheat. Have someone skeptical and competent (e.g. Zigerell) look them over before collecting data. Share all materials.
- Recruit about N=100 persons.
- Within subject design (for higher statistical power relative to the sample size).
- Two outcome measures: easy and hard tasks. E.g. something simple like reading a simple/complex text and answering comprehension questions. Operationalization: count the number of correct answers.
- A couple of music conditions:
- silence (using active noise-cancelling headphones perhaps)
- white noise
- instrumental electronic music, e.g. one of Deadmau5’s instrumental songs
- vocal electronic music, e.g. one of Deadmau5’s vocal songs
- metal music, e.g. early Metallica
- pop music, e.g. Justin Bieber/Miley Cyrus
- There should be the same number of unique texts (one in each difficulty) as music conditions. And they should be randomly combined in a random person at the individual-level.
Then we simply compare across the conditions.
Background music has been found to have beneficial, detrimental, or no effect on a variety of behavioral and psychological outcome measures. This article reports a meta-analysis that attempts to summarize the impact of background music. A global analysis shows a null effect, but a detailed examination of the studies that allow the calculation of effects sizes reveals that this null effect is most probably due to averaging out specific effects. In our analysis, the probability of detecting such specific effects was not very high as a result of the scarcity of studies that allowed the calculation of respective effect sizes. Nonetheless, we could identify several such cases: a comparison of studies that examined background music compared to no music indicates that background music disturbs the reading process, has some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact on emotional reactions and improves achievements in sports. A comparison of different types of background music reveals that the tempo of the music influences the tempo of activities that are performed while being exposed to background music. It is suggested that effort should be made to develop more specific theories about the impact of background music and to increase the methodological quality of relevant studies.
So, this reinforces my conclusion of a fragmented literature. They speculate about moderators effects, but moderator effects analyses are unreliable (I’m not familiar with any hard evidence but considering what LASSO does to normal OLS, it would eviscerate typical meta-regression findings), so I wouldn’t put much weight in that.