Listening to Music While Working Affects Your Productivity

Ph.D. candidate Manuel F. Gonzalez (Photo courtesy of Gonzalez)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

It’s not every day that academics get to bring their research to a mainstream audience. But that’s what happened when Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Manuel F. Gonzalez (Psychology, Industrial/Organizational Psychology) was invited to write for The Conversation.

Gonzalez recently co-authored a study that found listening to music can interfere with carrying out complex tasks. An editor for The Conversation, which brings academic work to the general public, saw the study in a psychology journal and asked Gonzalez to write an essay about the findings. Gonzalez spoke to The Graduate Center about the process of retooling his work for a mainstream audience, and about the study itself.

The Graduate Center: Many of us are working from home now because of the COVID-19 crisis, and it’s tempting to keep Spotify on in the background all day. But your research suggests we probably shouldn’t. You found that people did best on complex tasks when they weren’t listening to music, but music did help with simple, repetitive tasks. So, should we turn the music off while writing a thesis, but keep it on while folding laundry?

Gonzalez: As a psychologist, I've been trained in the art of "it depends,” so I'll try to offer some balanced advice here. Ultimately, if you want to listen to music while you work from home, it's important to strike a balance between how complex or simple your work is, and how stimulating your music is. I'm a total metalhead and I love blasting music when I'm doing relatively mundane work (e.g., simple data cleaning, copying survey items into questionnaires). However, when I need to sit and focus on my dissertation, the music either goes off entirely or I put on music that can easily fade into the background (I've really enjoyed streaming the LoFi hip hop channel on YouTube, for example). What represents a good balance will also depend on you. For example, if you're at the end of a long day and you're exhausted, you may not have much capacity left to juggle music and work. While you work from home, pay close attention to what balance works best for you.
GC: How was writing the essay different from writing for the academic journal?
Gonzalez: It took some mental adjusting to write something that's not for an academic journal. At first, it's hard to recognize just how much jargon we use when writing academic papers, so I had to take extra steps to translate my thoughts into plain English. One thing that made it easier was to focus on what the major takeaways are. One, it helps to balance how difficult the task is with how stimulating the music (e.g., you can benefit from listening to highly stimulating music when performing relatively easy work), and, two, these findings are not one size fits all, in that some people can be more strongly affected by listening to music while working, whereas others can handle more stimulation from music. 
GC: Have you had any feedback from the public on the essay?
Gonzalez: I think the findings resonated with a number of people. Some folks have shared stories echoing what we found. Others disagree, and defend that they can listen to music while doing all kinds of work. Still others offer "trolling" comments (one person critiqued our work as supporting capitalism, only to be referred to as a communist by another commenter). I try to focus less on the last group.
GC: What do you say to our CUNY colleague who took issue with your findings because he wrote all his books while listening to music?
Gonzalez: For those who disagree (including your colleague), there are some possible explanations for why people can perform complex tasks while listening to music that can still align with our research findings. Regarding the music, some people may listen to music that is so familiar to them that it may simply fade into the background while they're working, and so it no longer becomes much of a distraction. The notion of "task complexity" is also relatively subjective. For example, someone who is highly skilled at writing papers and does so very often will probably experience the task as easier, relative to someone who lacks these skills or rarely writes. As a result, the skilled writer will probably have bandwidth to listen to music while writing, whereas the novice writer will probably benefit from working in silence. 
GC: Tell us a little more about how the opportunity to write for The Conversation came about, and your thoughts on it.

Gonzalez: My colleague Jack Aiello (a professor at Rutgers, and co-author of the academic paper) and I were approached by Nick Lehr, an editor from The Conversation. He had come across our research and thought that a non-research audience might benefit from hearing about our findings. I've always been a big fan of making research digestible to the public, so I was on board right away. I think that there's always so much fascinating work going on in psychology that it would be a disservice to not inform people about what we're learning as a field. That being said, I think that my and Jack's research on music and task performance naturally lends itself to the essay's format. It's a research topic that I think a lot of people can readily apply to themselves. Music is an integral part of any culture, and technology has made music very easily accessible to all of us. Many of us (including myself) also work while listening to music.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: APR 7, 2020

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