Background music has become more ubiquitous with the advancement of music recording technology, and this raises concern regarding the impact of background music in various contexts.
In some situations, background music appears to be beneficial. For example, background music can increase productivity during physical industrial work (Dibben & Haake, 2013; Korczynski, 2003), music can help individuals modulate their arousal in order to improve their experience and performance in various exercises or sports (Laukka & Quick, 2013), and many employees who use personal music while they work report that it improves both their work experience and performance (Haake, 2011).
Background music appears to be helpful in these areas, but none of these studies found that all participants benefited from background music, and conflicting or insignificant results have been found some studies. Background music can even be detrimental to performance of some activities. For example, Brodsky and Slor (2013) found that the aggressiveness and errors made by young drivers increases while they listen to preferred music. In the context of personal studying, some students report that background music helps them concentrate and others claim they cannot study with music on (Greasley & Lamont, 2011). Performance scores on various cognitive tasks confirm that individuals differ in whether background music benefits cognitive performance (for example, Furnham & Bradley, 1997; Patston & Tippett, 2011).
Thus there appears to be no straightforward effect of background music, but perhaps more sense can be made of these findings when one considers the different variables and contexts involved. Indeed, in a meta-analysis of the impact of background music on adult listeners, Kämpfe et al. (2010) found no global effect of music on behavior, but a more detailed analysis revealed that music tends to has a small tendency towards a positive impact on motor behaviors and on emotional reactions, and a negative impact on cognitive behavior. The authors propose that the opposing results that make these effects so small are likely due to moderator variables not accounted for.
These moderator variables could be related to the listeners themselves. Some research has investigated this possibility, and the personality trait Extroversion has been of particular interest. Indeed, one of the early personality theorists who considered Extroversion a major component of personality, Hans Eysenck, had a theory that the biological basis of Extroversion in cortical arousal predicts that introverts would perform more poorly on more demanding tasks in more distracting environments (Eysenck, 1967, 1981). There have been several studies regarding the role of Extroversion in the impact of background music on cognitive performance in particular, and so I’m going to consider those studies here.
Since I am a student (and will be for the foreseeable future), I am quite interested in the impact of background music while you study. I have some friends who claim that they cannot work without music. Personally, I cannot work with music. I had a hunch that this was related to the personality trait Extroversion. Apparently others have had this thought as well; when I investigated the research literature on this topic, I found nine studies that look at whether Extroversion plays a role in the impact of background music on cognitive performance. Eight out of these nine studies found an interaction, such that introverts performed more poorly when listening to music. However, it is important to point out that only one of the nine studies found such an interaction for each cognitive test in the study, so it does not appear to be a straightforward interaction.
As was suggested by Kämpfe et al. (2010), these inconsistencies in results may be due to variables unaccounted for. This literature reveals many of the challenges that arise in studying behavior, and in studying musical behavior in particular. Here are a few methodological inconsistencies between studies and methodological difficulties within studies that make it hard to elucidate the relationship between Extraversion and cognitive performance with background music:
- Cognitive tasks. The type and difficulty of cognitive tests varied widely between the studies, including reading comprehension, recall tasks, mental arithmetic, logical tasks, and creative tasks, to name a few. It may be that music would have a greater impact on certain tasks. For example, one might think that music would cause more disturbance to language processes, given the suggestion that music and language share cognitive resources (Fedorenko, Patel, Casasanto, Winawer, & Gibson, 2009).
- Music. The volume, tempo, and genre of the music varied between studies, as well as the listeners’ familiarity and preference for the music. This is notable given evidence that these factors are related to cognitive performance. For example, Thompson, Schellenberg, and Letnic (2011) found that tempo and volume of background music influences reading comprehension ability, and Perham and Sykora (2012) found that serial recall performance was better while listening to disliked as opposed to liked background music. Additionally, regarding the role of musical style, there is a great deal of public interest regarding the idea that listening to classical music in particular will make you smarter – the so-called “Mozart Effect”. Perhaps I will write another post about that topic, but suffice it to say here that this effect is attributable to music’s ability to positively influence mood and arousal (Thompson, Schellenberg, & Husain, 2001). Thus, if you prefer the music, it may aid your cognitive performance, though it is important to note that studies on the “Mozart Effect” generally involve listening to music before, not while performing a cognitive task.
- Listener study habits. Only one study directly considered the impact of study habits with music on cognitive performance with music. Although six of the studies asked participants whether they study with background music, and all six found that Extraverts did so more frequently, only Crawford and Strapp (1994) directly looked at the relationship between study habits and performance. They found that those who usually did not study with music performed significantly more poorly on one of their cognitive tasks when there was background music, and they performed more poorly still for vocal music compared to instrumental music. This raises the question of whether study habits are a confounding factor in the relationship between Extraversion and cognitive performance with background music.. Although it is the case that Extraversion is related to study habits in general, with Introverts generally preferring less stimulating environments with less people and noise (Campbell & Hawley 1982), perhaps an Introvert who is accustomed to studying with background music (perhaps because of an annoying roommate) would perform just as well as an Extravert on a cognitive task while hearing background music.
- Context. The number of people present during the cognitive task varied widely between studies, from 1 (individual testing) to 21. This is notable given the finding that Introverts are less likely to choose to study in the presence of others (Campbell & Hawley, 1982). One might propose, for example, that the presence of others during a cognitive task may have greater impact on the performance of Introverts.
Thus, although Introversion appears to be related to poorer performance of cognitive tasks while listening to background music, it is difficult to get a clear understanding of this relationship due to the many variables that might be involved. These studies highlight many of the challenges involved in doing behavioral music research. It is possible that this area of research could benefit from more observational methods, such as the experience sampling method (ex., Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas, & Silva, 2008) to compliment controlled experimental studies. In this method, participants record their musical experiences at regular or random time intervals during their everyday life. While experimental studies attempt to measure or control for the variables involved, the experience sampling method would allow one to gain a better understanding of which variables are involved by not trying to control them. For example, it could result in information such as who studies with background music, why they do so, what music they listen to, what context they listen in, etc. This information could guide further systematic study of the contribution of the variables of interest.
Clearly the impact of background music is determined by many interrelated factors and only methods that carefully consider this reality will allow for meaningful interpretation of results. But maybe you shouldn’t listen to music while you study if you are an introvert!
Brodsky, W., & Slor, Z. (2013). Background music as a risk factor for distraction among young-novice drivers. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 59, 382-393.
Campbell, J. B. and Hawley, C. W. (1982). Study habits and Eysenck’s theory of extraversion- introversion. Journal of Research in Personality, 16: 139-146.
Crawford, H. J., & Strapp, C. M. (1994). Effects of vocal and instrumental music on visuospatial and verbal performance as moderated by studying preference and personality. Personality and individual differences, 16(2), 237-245.
Dibben, N., & Haake, A.B. (2013). The experiences of music in office-based workplace settings. In G.Born (Ed.), Music, sound and space: MP3, recording, and tuning in to the contemporary world (pp.151-168). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eysenck, H. J. (1967). The biological basis of personality. Springfield, IL: Thomas.
Eysenck, H. J. (1971). Relation between intelligence and personality. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 32, 637–638.
Fedorenko, E., Patel, A., Casasanto, D., Winawer, J., & Gibson, E. (2009). Structural integration in language and music: Evidence for a shared system. Memory & cognition, 37(1), 1-9.
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Haake, A. B. (2011). Individual music listening in workplace settings An exploratory survey of offices in the UK. Musicae Scientiae, 15(1), 107-129.
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Kämpfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The Impact of Background Music on Adult Listeners: A Meta-Analysis. Psychology of Music, 39(4), 424-448.
Korczynski, M. (2003). Music at work: towards a historical overview. Folk Music Journal, 314-334.
Laukka, P., & Quick, L. (2013). Emotional and motivational uses of music in sports and exercise: a questionnaire study among athletes. Psychology of music, 41(2), 198-215.
Patston, L. L., & Tippett, L. J. (2011). The effect of background music on cognitive performance in musicians and nonmusicians. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29(2), 173-183.
Perham, N., & Sykora, M. (2012). Disliked music can be better for performance than liked music. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(4), 550-555.
Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248-251.