A school librarian told me he was “pretty dismayed at the number of staff that let pupils listen to music on their phones while ‘working’. This includes writing essays and reading. My limited understanding is that this slows down the brain and undermines focus and best thinking, but is there hard evidence on this?… I know some writers, like Stephen King, listen to music with lyrics while they work, but I suspect that’s the exception rather than the rule. What say you?”
This echoes one of the most common questions I get from parents at the end of a talk: “If, as you say, everything we do occupies some ‘brain bandwidth’, including listening to music, surely we should tell young people not to listen to music while working?”
The short answer is no, not at all necessarily.
Let me explain.
Every thought and action occupies some brain bandwidth. Bandwidth, like your broadband line, is finite.
If you’re doing something that requires a lot of concentration – such as reading, writing, trying to remember, thinking – and you want to do it well, quickly and accurately or deeply, you will theoretically do yourself a favour by eliminating (if you could) everything that is occupying brain bandwidth so you have the most possible available for the prime task.
Listening to music occupies some bandwidth. So, according to the theory so far, you’d be better to switch the music off in order to focus on a task. (Car manufacturers know this, which is why they engineer cars so that the radio volume turns down when you’re doing parking, which requires more focus. Unfortunately, they haven’t factored in how irritating this is and how irritation also occupies bandwidth.)
However, that’s only that part of the theory and is not a complete answer. You see, in reality there are two other possible sets of things which are likely to be occupying bandwidth and likely to occupy more than listening to music you love:
- Noises and distracting irritations which you can’t control. Which would be more distracting: sniffing, rustling, tapping and clicking pens or some background music that you’re really familiar with? The first you have no control over and the second you have total control over.
- Noises inside your own head: thoughts, worries, frustration. These are very likely to distract.
Music can drown out both those competing distractions, allowing you to feel centred, safe, closeted, focused.
It matters a bit what music you choose, though. It ideally needs to be:
- Music you actually love
- More than one song – an album or playlist
- At a volume that doesn’t intrude on your thoughts
That’s all. I don’t believe it matters much, if at all, whether it has lyrics or not. If you’re very familiar with them you won’t be actively listening anyway.
It may also matter what task you’re doing, too, but each person is probably a bit different there. I’ve done a workshop activity where I get the group to do some fast mental maths and then I get them to do some with music playing loudly. We measure how many they get right under each circumstance. It’s usually about half and half. But all that tells us is that for that activity and with that music and in a group setting, that’s what happened. You might get a different result learning vocab or playing Mozart instead of heavy rock.
The librarian correspondent wondered if Steven King was unusual in listening to music with lyrics while he works. I’m certain he isn’t unusual. In fact, most writers I know listen to music and I know this is very often with lyrics. I do when I’m writing fiction, but usually not while I’m writing non-fiction. The music I choose is quite loud, anthemic, familiar, heart-rate rising.
You might be interested in this balanced article here.
There has been a great deal of reporting of some research by Russ Poldrak purporting to show that watching TV (or even having it on in the room) while working is a bad idea and that doing so makes the info you’re reading go into the “wrong” brain areas. But the research doesn’t specifically look at TV, just at distractions, of which clearly TV would be one. So I think the research is valid, just not quite the press reporting of it.
BUT TV is very different from background music. TV speaks to you, engages the parts of your mind that are involved with info-processing, and that competes directly with your reading/writing/work.
So, what I say to parents, teachers and students is this:
Do what makes you feel more able to focus. Think about it properly and honestly. Choose the music that works for you and play it at a volume that supports you rather than shouting at you. You need to ride the music effortlessly, not have to think about it.
There is one problem though, and it’s important: since you won’t be able to listen to music in an exam, don’t get too used to working with music. Use ear-plugs to block out noises sometimes, including in the exam!
Walking while working…
As an interesting linked point: you may know that I use a treadmill while I’m working. It helps me focus in just the same way music does. But, I’ve noticed that when I get to a bit of work when I suddenly need to think extra deeply, or it’s something really difficult, I stop walking. I turn the music off, too.
Because sometimes I feel I need that blast of super-concentration.
I believe that most people, when they find themselves trying to concentrate on something really difficult, naturally stop doing the things that are affecting their concentration a bit: they’ll stop walking fast, turn down music, put their hand up to stop someone talking to them. Young people will do it, too. We just each of us have to notice and adapt to the situation. Notice what helps us and what doesn’t.
I don’t believe 100% focus 100% of the working time is necessary or even helpful. I believe that most of the time, something less – let’s call it 90% – is perfect for the task, even a difficult task. (I think, and my understanding of cognitive science supports this, that a little bit of mental composting space is helpful for most tasks.) But just occasionally, for a short period, we may need let’s say 95%. And perhaps listening to music or walking on a treadmill take up 6%? That’s the only way I can explain what I observe to be true.
And it fits bandwidth theory.
But not walking while talking
One final point: I do a lot of public speaking. I’m confident and unfazed by it. But, unlike some speakers, I cannot walk while talking. My Fitbit will record me as walking under 1000 steps in a whole day’s INSET training, where I’m on my feet and speaking for hours. My explanation is that, for me, talking and remembering all the details of the science and arguments I’m delivering, remembering what I’ve said and what I’m about to say, occupies almost all my bandwidth and there’s simply none left for walking.
I wouldn’t want music on either…