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Music: The Great Distraction?

By on June 1, 2012One Comment
Vienne State Opera

Is even the Vienna State Opera a distraction?

Recently, I noticed more and more knowledge workers wearing headsets while at their desks. Not just earbuds, but noise-cancelling headsets, the kind you’d expect to see on an airplane (indeed, Bose invented the noise-cancelling headset over 20 years ago specifically for use by pilots).

While some people are simply using the active (or in some cases passive) noise-cancelling feature, most are listening to music.

What choice they make in music will unquestionably impact their productivity.

Years ago, when we planned the first Basex office space large enough to require a PA system and speakers, we also installed a CD-changer (these were pre-MP3 days), which played music in the background.

The type of music was subject to great debate but I insisted on music without any lyrics and without any particularly distracting beat. This translated into classical and jazz and, to be honest, was not a popular decision in the office.

But I had my reasons, the primary one being that listening to music with lyrics is a distraction. We had yet to start our research on distractions and interruptions (the timeframe I am writing about is ca. 1996) but, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know a distraction when I see it.

We actually did some informal tests by playing music from various radio stations and I quizzed some of my colleagues after different types of music had been playing. What I found was quite revealing: favorite songs pretty much caused work to stop, DJ chatter slowed things down, and classical music was soothing.

This is because the lyrics or banter were essentially overloading the brain and it had to work overtime to keep the focus on work versus the music (this is an activity that takes place in the brain’s prefrontal cortex). As we have learnt since then, distractions take a significant toll on workplace productivity and each interruption comes with the penalty of what I named “recovery time,” i.e. the time it takes the knowledge worker to return to the task at hand after the interruption. (For an in-depth discussion of recovery time, the reader is referred to Information Overload – Is there a silver bullet?)

Recently, I read of several studies that took place in Japan on the topic. One linked music with lyrics to lower levels of concentration. Another found that workers without strong feelings about music found music less distracting than those who either really liked or disliked it. A third study, this time in the U.S., found that listening to hip-hop music resulted in a significant reduction of reading-test scores.

So back to the original topic of headphones for a moment. While having a choice in music may be something workers today feel is an entitlement – after all, thanks to the Internet, when it comes to music, the world is your oyster – there may be a significant downside when it comes to productivity depending on what each individual chooses to listen to. (In the interest of fairness, there may be an upside as well but that is beyond the scope of this analysis in which I am focusing on how certain types of music can overtax the brain while knowledge workers are attempting to work.)

As for me, I listen to Radio Swiss Classic on the Internet. Since it’s an Internet-only radio station (run by a major broadcaster, SRG SSR idée Suisse), there are no commercials and no news reports, just a very brief announcement with details on the work being played.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

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