I was watching an interview with Spolsky and he mentioned some study that showed listening to music with headphones caused a drop in having "deep thoughts"


I can't find this anywhere; what was the study and where can I find it?


1 Answer 1


"Music is considered an ecologically valid auditory stimulus since many different brain centers can be activated through functional dissociation between the ventral and dorsal networks involved in event segmentation of music."

Evidence is inconclusive to suggest using headphones to drown out office noise is detrimental since some studies show positive/neutral effects while others show negative effects.

Positive or neutral effects of music listening in offices

  1. Researchers Newman & Hunt 1966 found that employees enjoyed the background music, but there was no effect on their productivity.

  2. Music goes best with repetitive tasks that require focus but little higher-level cognition. A landmark 1972 study in Applied Ergonomics showed that music goes best with repetitive tasks that require focus but little higher-level cognition since it found that factory workers performed at a higher level when upbeat, happy tunes were played in the background. This research by Fox & Embrey 1972 reveals listening to background music helped improve the efficiency of performing a repetitive task.

  3. Employees in relatively simple jobs responded most positively to the stereos. A study ''Listen while you work? Quasi-experimental relations between personal-stereo headset use and employee work responses.' by Greg R Oldham et. al. in 1995 showed that for employees with simple, routine jobs, enhanced relaxation caused their increases in performance, while decreases in distractions improved their attitudes toward their jobs and the company but for others, it will have the opposite effect.

Results indicated that employees in the stereo condition exhibited significant improvements in performance, turnover intentions, organization satisfaction, mood states, and other responses. The mood state of relaxation best explained the relation between stereo use and performance. Finally, employees in relatively simple jobs responded most positively to the stereos.

  1. The effect of music on work performance may be due to music making the person feel in a positive mood state per Leisuk 2005.

Results indicated that state positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed. Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working.

  1. Employees often used music to seal themselves off from the office environment per the findings of a 2011 survey of 295 office employees in the UK for listening patterns.

Music helped them to both engage in and escape from work, and they often used music to seal themselves off from the office environment. Employees managed their listening practices so as not to disturb colleagues or appear unprofessional in front of clients.

'Coding war games' was an extensive research study that involved 600 developers from 92 companies. The results were that 62% of the best performers said they had an acceptably private workspace and 76% of the worst said people interrupted them needlessly. This explains that, top performers worked for companies that gave them control over space, physical environments and freedom from interruption. Headphones may provide absolute control over the worker's audio-environment and helps him in privatizing his or her public space.

However, several other studies provided inconclusive results by which we cannot determine any conclusion regarding the effect of headphone use in office for listening to music on productivity since research shows that under some conditions, music actually improves performance, while in other situations music makes it worse.

Negative effects of music during task performance

  1. Reading comprehension is disrupted when playing fast and loud background music.

  2. Per study by Ravi Mehta et. al. in 2012, "Most studies find that noise hurts creativity (Hillier, Alexander, and Beversdorf 2006; Kasof 1997; Martindale and Greenough 1973), there is some evidence that for highly original individuals, moderate noise may lead to improved creative performance (Toplyn and Maguire 1991)."

Ambient noise, an important environmental variable, can affect creativity. Results from five experiments demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.

  1. Music may impair cognitive abilities while hearing music at the same time as doing the expected task per a 2010 study at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, United Kingdom by Nick Perham and and Joanne Vizard published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Researchers looked at participant's capacity to memorize information while listening to an array of sounds. The students were told to memorize a list of letters in order and tested after studying in complete silence, music they liked, and music they didn't like, among other sounds. Participants performed worst while listening to music, regardless of whether they liked that music or not and they did the best in the quiet or completely silent environment. The researchers believe the music impairs the cognitive abilities in these scenarios because when individuals are trying to memorize data they are thrown off by the changing words and notes within the music.

Results revealed performance to be poorer for both music conditions and the changing-state speech compared to quiet and steady-state speech conditions. The lack of difference between both music conditions suggests that preference does not affect serial recall performance.

  1. Background music influenced listener attention. The results of a randomized controlled trial 'Effects of background music on concentration of workers' by Huang RH 2009 which analyzed how different types of background music and how listeners’ degree of preference for the background music can affect listener concentration in attention testing showed

Background music influenced listener attention. This influence has more to do with listener fondness for the music than with type of music. Compared to situations without background music, the likelihood of background music affecting test taker attention performance is likely to increase with the degree to which the test taker likes or dislikes the music.

  1. Listening to music with lyrics tend to lower concentration test scores. The results of a study of 102 Taiwanese college students published in the journal Work found that "music with a higher intensity is more distracting and has a greater effect on task performance and concentration".
  • what I miss is the effect is of headphones on communication between people. Which may be what the original claim that they make people less productive is all about.
    – jwenting
    Jul 9, 2015 at 8:29
  • @jwenting: "Rachel Silverman and Robin Sidel reported in their piece on the officeless office, GlaxoSmithKline, which has saved $10 million in annual real estate costs by shifting 1,200 employees at one New Jersey site to unassigned seating, found that decision-making among their staff had risen by 25% primarily because e-mail exchanges had been replaced by good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations — conversations that never would’ve happened had all their employees been wearing headphones." Excerpt from Managing yourself Workers, Take Off Your Headphones by Anne Kreamer, HBR Apr 30 2012. Jul 9, 2015 at 9:48
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    ty, that was missing. In my experience it's a tradeoff. Headphones are great when you need to focus intensely and any disturbance is going to mean a delay, but most of the time the interaction is a bonus (of course that doesn't mean constant interruptions and an extremely noisy environment, if you have that there's more wrong that needs fixing...).
    – jwenting
    Jul 9, 2015 at 10:30
  • What does the first sentence mean?
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:19
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    I am familiar with what music is! I don't think the first sentence belongs. None of the following terms are relevant to the question or any other part of the answer: "ecologically valid", "event segmentation", "dorsal and ventral networks" , "functional dissociation" or "event segmentation". How music is interpreted, neurologically, is irrelevant (and at the wrong level of abstraction) to the question about whether it improves productivity.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 9, 2015 at 17:40

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