The Psychology of Music

In a previous post, I mentioned how text messaging can be a very distracting tool for students. From my own experiences, I’ve seen people at the library and in class text message continuously, distracting them from what’s really important. I’ve seen the same thing happen with music. Practically every student has an MP3 player and/or laptop with music downloads. Using these devices while studying, or in lectures, has proven to be a threat to school performance. But for others, music stimulates the brain and allows one to focus. At the workplace, many employees are listening to music at their cubicles.

A study at the University of Windsor studied the effect of music on software engineers. The researchers collected data from 56 participants (male and female) and observed their work performance over five weeks. The results indicated that when music was absent, quality of work was the lowest and projects were taking a lot longer to complete. The researchers concluded that music promoted a positive mood and improved acuity.

There is one potential flaw to this study – were the projects the same difficulty when comparing presence of music to the control? If easier projects were assigned to the subjects when they were listening to music, then no practical conclusions can be made from the study.

However, other analysis demonstrates that music has a positive effect on how our brain functions. A study was conducted to test the ability of mice to learn new things. When the mice were exposed to heavy metal music, they actually all started attacking each other. When mice were exposed to classical music, there was a clear observable improvement in perception. This experiment poses an interesting question, how do different types of music affect our performance? Are there significant differences between music genres when assessing quality of work?

Music is a lot more powerful than we think. In fact, music has been used as a means of therapy. Researchers observed that patients who listened to calm, classical music experienced significantly less post-surgical throbbing than those who did not. Exposure to music helps autistic children stay calm and maintain composure during stressful situations. Even in plants, studies demonstrated that plants exposed to jazz or classical music grew healthier compared to those exposed to rock music, which grew droopy.

But music has also demonstrated negative effects. Music can be a distraction tool for many while working, walking, running, driving etc. Just like text messaging, it makes you unaware of the environment around you. Having an impaired perception of what people are saying around you could be very dangerous. The American Psychological Society found a strong correlation between violence and music. Youths who listened to music with violent lyrics were linked to more aggressive and dangerous behavior. A study by a sociology professor found that higher rates of suicide were present among those who listen to old country music.

Although I have mentioned a variety of conclusions that have been formulated by analysis of music studies, there are a few points to consider that could potentially question the validity of these results. Many studies use small sample sizes that do not reflect the population. In addition, there are many other variables that could be present that skew the data. Thus more research is required to accurately develop conclusions regarding the effects of music. However, many of these experiments have been reproduced to provide very similar results.

I’ve noticed that the link between work or school performance and music generally varies from person to person. Although studies do show that there is a general positive correlation, data should be dug deeper. For example, what types of music have the best and worst effect? Are there any specific professions that music has an overwhelmingly positive or negative effect? We have already seen a few studies that demonstrate opposite effects when comparing classical to heavy metal music exposure.

However, funding a study of such nature would be very worthwhile because this could provide a lot of value to educational and work institution policies. Permitting the use of music could improve employee output and productivity. It wouldn’t even cost the company anything because of the free accessibility of online radio. Even then, who doesn’t have a mobile music device these days? Perhaps we may even see universities allowing the use of personal music during examinations (of course these students would have to be closely monitored). After all, exams technically are supposed to test our knowledge and ability to apply concepts in real world situations (what they actually do is another topic of debate). And in real world situations, we would probably be listening to music, so why can’t we during exams?