Background music alters cognition

This is how it affects studying and productivity

by Aditya Shukla, psychologist + musician

Music reduces mind-wandering during boring work



When we are not fully engaged in a task or a task is too easy/boring, your mind wanders and reduces productivity. Mind wanders because there is un-used attention. Music can occupy that surplus attention and help you focus.

There is a hierarchy of distracting sounds 



Different types of music disrupts memory and attention. Vocals and speech disrupt the most. Instrumental music disrupts less. Silence and noise work equally well for most. Instruments like sax and electric guitar can be as distracting as vocals due to overlapping frequencies.

Background sounds can make you creative



Through a process called "stochastic resonance", musical signals to the ear amplify signaling in the brain, which increases neural firing efficiency. Adding musical noise strengthens weak neural signals. This helps with creative thinking by activating more neural connections at random.

Multi-tasking with music helps learning



For difficult tasks, don't use music. For easy tasks, use music. Adjust the volume and choose songs based on how much "load" there is on the brain. Medium load works best. Too little load or too much is bad for learning.

Your beliefs about how music affects you matters



Choosing music according to your preference when you have beliefs like "EDM helps me focus" or "metal is distracting" matters the most. Your beliefs determine how effective music is to help you focus.

Music can help ADHD brains



ADHD is likely caused by low dopamine activity, and music can increase it through the anticipation of musical sequences/elements and the peak emotions created by music. White noise can also help ADHD children but hamper non-ADHD children while doing cognitive work like calculations, memorizing, analysis, etc.