Sound x Performance

Sound x Performance

Sound surrounds us. Constantly.

The steady noise of the refrigerator humming. The beat of your favorite playlist steering your morning commute. The sound of your coworker feverishly typing on his keyboard. Whether consciously aware or not, sound fills nearly every crevice of our lives. But what effect does all this noise have?

Reflecting on our own experiences, we know that sound moves us, motivates our behavior, and even shapes our mood. When that perfect song comes on… we find we are suddenly able to run that extra half mile. When the apartment buzzer rings, we are prompted to buzz the Seamless deliveryman in to bring us dinner. And the sound of a bottle of champagne being uncorked alone can lead to pure euphoria — for some of us.

And research has found just that. Sounds are powerful forces that change us. Sounds improve our mood (Ferguson & Sheldon, 2013). They reduce stress and anxiety (Knight & Rickard, 2001). And they shape the way we understand what other people are feeling (Logeswaran & Bhattacharya, 2009). One study by a team at McMaster University even found that music not only makes strenuous workouts feel easier, but it also leads people to exercise harder and have more fun doing so.

Sound clearly has an impact on how we feel and how we play, but can sound improve how we work?

One of the most common sounds we turn to in the office is music. But when it comes to music and workplace performance, the results are mixed. Listening to music while completing repetitive tasks has long been demonstrated to improve performance. For instance, in a series of experiments conducted in 1972, Fox and Embrey found that when listening to music, line workers more accurately spotted defective parts, and were more efficient at detecting these errors throughout the duration of their shift, compared to when they worked in silence. And this is because music improves our mood. In a 2001 experiment, Thompson and colleagues found that listening to Mozart improved people’s performance on a test of spatial abilities, but when controlling for mood, this effect disappeared entirely. In other words, listening to music makes us happier, which improves work.

Yet other research suggests that regardless of the spike in positive mood, when performing tasks that involve thought, like reading or writing, listening to music actually hurts productivity. One reason this could happen is because listening to music saps us of our ability to focus, leaving less attentional resources to direct to the task at hand. In fact, work by Peter Chou demonstrated that the more intense the music, the more distracting. Essentially, our brains are tasked with analyzing each sensory input from our environment. The more inputs there are — whether words on a page or music from a speaker — the less ability we have to focus on any one of them specifically. 

And this reasoning is sound (no pun intended). A psychological effect known as the “Irrelevant Speech Effect” demonstrates that our memory worsens when we hear irrelevant or background speech sounds — think lyrics in a song. For example, imagine you are reading in a quiet library and someone takes a phone call right behind you. According to this effect, your memory of what you read will be thwarted by the background conversation, even though you might not be paying attention to it. In fact, a team led by William Macken at the University of Wales found that when presented just before or even at the beginning of a memory task, unrelated background sound didn’t hurt performance, but when presented during the task, it proved detrimental. Listening to music with lyrics while working on intellectual projects could actually hurt how well we can do our jobs. 

Other researchers disagree. They say that a certain level of distraction can be beneficial — perhaps even necessary — for creative thinking. In this camp, Ravi Mehta and colleagues at the University of Illinois found that a moderate level of noise (85 dB, or noise comparable to the clamor of city traffic heard from inside a car) actually enhanced performance on a creative task compared to a low level (50 dB, or sound intensity comparable to a refrigerator).

So, is there some sort of middle ground between “good” and “bad” distraction, especially for creative thinking? Enter ambient music.  

Ambient music has been around for 40 years, but research testing how it affects our psyche and our stamina is pretty new. New data out there suggests there is something just right about ambient music. This largely electronic instrumental music with no persistent beat might be just what we need to help us turn up the productivity. As composer pioneer Brian Eno has noted, “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” which is critical to why it may be beneficial. In other words, it might provide a level of distraction that is just right, without being detrimental to overall performance. 

And this middle ground might be especially beneficially for creative thinking, as Mehta and colleagues suggest. In fact, the researchers used ambient noise as stimuli in their study and concluded that ambient sound triggered participants to think abstractly, which subsequently increased their ability for creative output.

Intuitively, this makes sense. We don’t exist in silent or static environments, and sometimes distractions provide the foundation for insight. Consider when moments of genius usually strike — when brushing your teeth or even sitting under an apple tree. Often stepping away from the idea proves useful, while “thinking too hard” or “forcing it” are often found to be inspiration inhibitors.

So what does this mean for me?

The fact of the matter is simple: We have the ability to modify our environments to set us up for success — creative or otherwise — and there is evidence to suggest ambient music might be the golden egg of the productivity pursuit. Ultimately, our brains are uniquely our own, and what works for some of us might not work for others. But if we could harness the power of sound to improve productivity or boost creative output, doesn’t it seem reasonable to turn up the volume and give it a shot?