Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How do varying background music conditions impact the performance of attention, recall and comprehension tasks?

 “How many of you studied with music in the background during your undergraduate studies? And how many of you studied in silence?” asked one of the graduate school orientation organizers. The question was proposed in order to make the point that we all made it to the same place despite having a variety of studying and music listening routines. During my undergraduate studies, I enjoyed upbeat background music during tasks that used up less of my “brain power” and needed silence to comprehend complex concepts. Songs I liked tempted me to sing along and soft music lowered my energy level and led me to sleep. My interest in how well our brain copes with dual processes, music and learning tasks, led me to complete this short essay on how the performance of three types of tasks usually involved in studying (attention, recall, comprehension) correlate with varying background music conditions. The sources chosen to be reviewed were limited to those published after Robert Jourdain’s book “Music, the Brain and Ecstasy”, not relating to learning tasks other than the ones mentioned above,  and whose participants were between 19-30 years old.

Attention tasks

Attention task performance was shown to vary based on the presence or absence of lyrics and the music preferences of the participants. In Shi, Huang and Chiang (2012) and Huang and Shih (2011), identification of the number of asterisks in a series of scrambled codes was used as the test for attention.

Shi, Huang and Chiang (2012) based their research on three conditions – quiet, music with lyrics, and music without lyrics. There was a significant negative impact on the attention performance in the music with lyrics environment compared to the quiet environment. There was no significant difference between quiet and music without lyrics or between music with lyrics and music without lyrics.  The music with lyrics and music without lyrics did not differ in volume or tune. Details were not available as to which instrument would carry the tune instead of the voice. The findings of this research, that the presence of words diverts one’s attention from the task, supports Jourdain’s (1997) idea of the importance of words to melody listening.

Huang and Shih (2011) found that participants with no background music scored higher on an attention test than participants exposed to popular songs, classical light music or traditional Chinese music. Although popular songs, the only category that may have contained lyrics, did not significantly differ from the classical light (instrumental) and the traditional Chinese (instrumental), I noticed that the mean score was slightly lower than the instrumental categories.

 It seems that a quiet environment produced better attention scores than music with lyrics in both papers, although not quite significantly better in the Huang and Shih (2011) paper. A quiet environment produced similar attention scores to instrumental in the Shi, Huang and Chiang (2012) paper and better than instrumental in the Huang and Shih (2011) paper. Also, participants whose preference for the background music was ‘dislike very much’ or ‘like very much’ scored lower on the attention test (Huang & Shih, 2011).

Recall tasks

Recall tasks were not only correlated with music preference but also with the personality of the listener. In Perham and Vizard’s (2011) research, participants were exposed to 5 different music states – quiet, steady-state, changing-state, liked music and disliked music ‒ as they tried to recall 25 different sets of 8 consonants. The steady-state was a man’s voice repeating the same number and the changing-state was the same voice saying a sequence of random digits (1-9). The liked music was the participants’ choice, all by contemporary artists like Lady Gaga. The disliked music was thrash metal, which participants agreed that they disliked in advance. They also filled out a ratings questionnaire about the likeability, distractibility, offensiveness and pleasantness of the sounds.

             When participants heard quiet or steady-state speech, they had more successful recall than when they heard changing-state speech, liked or disliked music. They were less successful with music they found likeable and pleasant, even offensive. Combining these results with the findings of Huang and Shih (2011) show that both attention and recall tasks scored less during liked and disliked music compared to a quiet environment.

The distractibility property data collected by Perham and Vizard (2011) produced interesting results. The musical conditions that participants found most distracting (steady-state) and least distracting (quiet) produced similar results. Participants were more successful with quiet and steady-state than with music they liked, disliked or changing-state.

The trend in the research discussed so far implies better success in quiet environments but the following paper complicates matters as it associates the success in quiet conditions with introverts, not extroverts.  The research by Furnham and Allass (1999) was based on Eysenck’s theory of personality which claimed that arousal levels depended on personality such that introverts experienced arousal at lower-level intensity stimulation than extroverts. Both simple and complex music used in this study contained lyrics. Overall, extroverts performed better than introverts in immediate recall tests. Extroverts performed their best during complex background music but introverts performed their best during silence. To the extroverts, there seemed no significant difference between hearing complex or simple music in terms of distraction. To the introverts, however, complex music was more distracting than simple music. 

Comprehension tasks

With regard to reading comprehension, Furnham and Allass (1999) found that although the trends were similar to the idea that extroverts perform better during complex music and introverts during silence, the results were not significantly different.

On another language test, musicians and non-musicians were compared after they marked grammatically incorrect sentences while they listened to silence, piano music with no errors or piano music with errors (Patston & Tippett, 2011). Musicians scored better than non-musicians overall in all categories. The musicians scored less when there was piano music (compared to silence) and even worse when there were errors in the music. Non-musicians were not impacted significantly by the three different conditions. In visuospatial testing, musicians did better than non-musicians overall but the difference within one group over the three different conditions did not vary. In other words, the musicians were quite impacted during the language tests by the change in conditions but not during the visuospatial test. The authors suggest that the trend implies that the musical and language processes overlap in a musicians brain so errors in one category (music) cause the brain to make errors in the other category (language) and vice versa. Jourdain (1997) suggests that expert listening would require more effort than passive listening. Assuming that the musicians were familiar with the piano music, information lacking in the paper, their brains would perhaps tend to analyse deeper relations in the music and expend more energy in listening than non-musicians especially when the anticipated relations were faulty.

As evident in the research reviewed in this essay, it is quite difficult to make a generalisation or recommendation with regard to listening to music as one is studying. Not only is the type of task a determinant but also various qualities of the music, our personality and our educational background. I also found that many research papers discussed their results in terms of arousal, whereas Jourdain (1997) maintained the importance of distinguishing between arousal and attention. For example, no questions were asked to examine the attention given to the music itself after the task tests other than likeability properties. A thorough examination of the music used in addition to further insight by music experts would be valuable to our understanding of the brain as it relates to music and studying.


Furnham, A., & Allass, K. (1999). The influence of musical distraction of varying complexity on the cognitive performance of extroverts and introverts. European Journal of Personality, 13(1), 27-38. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-0984(199901/02)13:1<27::AID-PER318>3.0.CO;2-R

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy : How music captures our imagination (1st ed. ed.). New York: W. Morrow.

Patston, L. L. M., & Tippett, L. J. (2011). The effect of background music on cognitive performance in musicians and nonmusicians. Music Perception, 29(2), 173-183.

Perham, N., & Vizard, J. (2011). Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(4), 625-631. doi: 10.1002/acp.1731

Huang, R.H. & Shih, Y. (2011). Effects of background music on concentration of workers. Work, 38(4), 383-387. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2011-1141

Shih, Y. N., Huang, R. H., & Chiang, H. Y. (2012). Background music: Effects on attention performance. Work (Reading, Mass.), 42(4), 573-578. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2012-1410


Amy zampiero said...

I like the topic you choose for this paper as it covers a lot of ground concerning musicians, non-musicians and extroverts and introverts and the type of music we can tolerate while doing tasks. I know that I am an extrovert and sometimes listening to uplifting instrumental music helps me get rid of my inner critic especially when I am writing. I seem to focus more and have clearer thoughts. I was surprised to see that there have been no conclusive findings regarding this research.

Amanda Tosoff said...

Your essay highlights some very interesting ideas. I personally find it very difficult to focus when listening to music, especially if it is music I enjoy or have studied previously. I can definitely see how musicians in the Patston & Tippett study scored less when listening to piano music in comparison to silence. I thought it was interesting how musicians scored even worse the music had errors. I think I would react this way as well! It it also very interesting that non-musicians were not impacted as significantly as musicians in this study. My boyfriend, who has never studied music, can listen to music while he reads or studies - his brain is not trained to hear music in the same way musicians do. I suppose the reason I cannot study or read with music on has to do with the overlap of musical and language processes that you mention occur in musician's brains. I'd love to know more about how language and music overlap!