It contained bad news for anyone, like me, who believes background music is some sort of special hay that makes the writing horse trot. It turns out the best thing to listen to, for most office workers, is nothing.
An early study called “Music—an aid to productivity,” appropriately found that music could be just that. But the study subjects in that experiment were doing rote factory work, examining metal parts on conveyor belts. The boost in productivity the researchers noticed happened because the music simply made the task less boring and kept the workers alert. This also helps explain later studies finding that music helped surgeons perform better. “Most of what a brain surgeon spends their time doing is drilling through the skull bone,” said Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music. “In that case, it’s a situation like being a long-distance truck driver. If nothing goes wrong, the task itself is somewhat boring and repetitive, so you need something that will keep you psychologically aroused.” (Of course, at some point the surgeon will have to start doing stuff to the brain itself, at which point you’d hope they would hit pause.)
When silence and music were put head to head in more cognitively complex tests, people did better in silence. In a study from the 1980s, researchers gave subjects the option to listen to either upbeat or soft music of their preferred genre, or nothing, while counting backward. The people who listened to their favorite, upbeat tunes did worst of all, and those who heard silence did best.
The more engaging the music is, the worse it is for concentration. Music with lyrics is dreadful for verbal tasks, Levitin said. Music with lots of variation has been found to impair performance—even if the person enjoys it. A just-out conference paper showed that music and speech, compared with white noise, made study subjects more annoyed and hurt their scores on memory and math tests.
Some studies—one that used meditative Koan music and another that used quiet classical music —showed slightly positive effects of background noise on task performance. But lyric-free music is less distracting, and some of the people whose performance was improved may have come up with subconscious mental hacks to avoid getting sidetracked by music. One study that had middle-schoolers listen to the Billboard singles from 2006—Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” and such—while reading found nearly three-quarters of them did worse on a comprehension test. But those that didn’t might “have developed cognitive strategies that enable them to focus on study tasks despite competing background stimuli,” the authors wrote.
The reason this doesn’t work for most people, Levitin said, is most people can’t pay attention to very much at once. Lyrics can soak up precious attention, as can flashing lights or a really bad smell.