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Turn Down the Volume?

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A new study has examined the question of whether our concentration and memory are improved or hindered when we listen to music, and whether this can depend on our personality type and even the music we are listening to.

By Matthew Flavel

Does music help or hinder our concentration and memory?

Have you ever turned down the radio while trying to find a car park or when you are lost? Why would you need to reduce the work your ears are doing for a job seemingly just for your eyes? A recent study published in The Gerontologist (tinyurl.com/pfl5qcp) has a sound explanation for why you turned the radio off.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology challenged both young and old participants to remember face and name combinations while either listening to background music or complete silence. Interestingly, while all participants from the music-listening group agreed that the music was distracting, only the performance of older participants was reduced.

Perhaps the background music chosen by the researchers unfairly targeted the older demographic by mainly including dated instrumental renditions from Eric Clapton, Jefferson Airplane and Rush. Nevertheless, this study challenges the long-held belief that listening to music can improve concentration.

Study leader Sarah Reaves of the Georgia Institute of Technology believes that her group’s findings should inform choices for people as they get older. “Older adults who struggle to concentrate while meeting with co-workers at a coffee shop, for example, should schedule meetings in quieter locations,” Reaves suggests.

The explanation for this phenomenon is simply that music adds extra stress to the brain, which is constantly filtering out irrelevant information in order to make decisions. By turning the music off we unclog the information drain.

While this study does give you a very good excuse for why you can’t remember the name of the person you met at a loud party recently, the topic of music and the mind is not quite as simple.

A 1977 study published in Psychological Reports by Smith and Morris of Middle Tennessee State University took an interesting approach to this topic. Students who either majored in music or psychology completed a test with a variety of styles of music playing in the background. Strangely, there was no significant change in the performance of people listening to background music compared with people completing the test without it. However, participants reported that they struggled more to concentrate, felt more worried about the test and expected themselves to perform poorly. All types of music tested were distracting for both music and psychology majors, but music majors were more distracted by music deemed “stimulative” rather than “sedative”. Ultimately, the fact that music did not have a clear effect on performance is evidence for leaving the music on if you feel like it and turning it off if it starts worrying you.

Is the distraction related to your personality? Could a creative person be inspired to higher achievement with Eye of the Tiger blaring in the background? A 2012 study published in Thinking Skills and Creativity by researchers at University College London compared the performance of people they deemed “creative” or “non-creative” as they tried to concentrate with music in the background. Participants were given two reading comprehension tests, one to be completed with background music and the other without. The performance of non-creatives on the reading comprehension test did not differ with silence or music, but creative people had an insignificant increase in performance with music compared with silence. Not all individual participants found the music distracting. However, it is not surprising that those who did find it distracting performed worse.

This study showed that music can be marginally beneficial to some people’s concentration, but also damaging to others. Therefore the choice of background music on or off may best be left to the individual.

The evidence does appear stacked against background music as a useful concentration tool, yet the case for music isn’t quite over yet. A hotly debated concept in the world of psychology and music is known as “The Mozart Effect”. While mixing classical music and psychology may sound more like A Clockwork Orange than a legitimate scientific investigation, it needs to be considered in this discussion. The idea of a Mozart Effect was first published in Nature on 14 October 1993 by scientists from University of California Irvine. Participants listened to a recording of spoken relaxation instructions, Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major and complete silence. Each of these took 10 minutes and an aptitude test was given to the participant straight after each. The results showed that participants were able to improve their IQ scores by 8–9 points after listening to Mozart compared with scores they achieved after the relaxation tape or silence. It’s important to remember that this improvement was gained when music was listened to before an activity rather than during it.

A subsequent meta-analysis also published in Nature argued that any improvement was because Mozart’s music made participants feel good, rather than Mozart’s music specifically having a magical effect. Therefore you can choose to blast Mozart or Metallica before beginning a mentally demanding task – it just needs to make you feel good.

Listening to music is not only distracting but it could alter our gene expression. However, this can sometimes be a good thing. A study published this year in PeerJ by scientists at The University of Finland analysed the genome of 48 people after listening to music before15 returned for a second genetic test with no music. Again, enter Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but this time his Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major was chosen. Incredibly, 97 different genes changed how they were expressed after participants listened to Mozart. Genes linked to the production of hormones such as dopamine increased expression. Given that dopamine and the brain’s reward system are so closely linked, this hints at how listening to music could make someone feel happy.

The gene expression changes also inferred potential benefits relating to memory, learning and general brain health. This points to the possibility that music could aid in protecting and even improving the brain. Unfortunately, this study only tested 15 of the 48 participants under conditions of music and no music.

It is also important to note that testing of music and no music occurred on separate days. This experimental design therefore leaves the study wide open to innumerable variables that could have a greater influence on gene expression than a violin concerto.

While the idea of music influencing biological structure and function is intriguing, much more work needs to be done to investigate if the claim is backed by the science. Don’t expect to find CDs replacing capsules any time soon at your local pharmacist.

In light of the evidence it is clear that listening to music should be fully appreciated as an activity itself, not just an optional extra. Music has made its way into the background of almost every corner of life, largely due to how enjoyable and engaging it is. Because it is so efficient at grabbing our attention, any tasks demanding our concentration will be hindered, not helped with music.

Next time you get lost in the car, remember that Mozart is a great composer but a very unhelpful navigator.

Matthew Flavel is a PhD candidate in Human Nutrition at La Trobe University.