By Joanna Jaoudie
With the start of the academic year already rearing its unfortunate head, many people are getting ready to go back to school, while others are settling back into a post-summer, post-Ramadan work routine. For most of us, that means that the fun is over. But does that mean that we need to pack up our music along with it? Music is an essential form of entertainment and a good way to kick off a variety of celebrations for many people, young and old. With this mode of thought, we tend to associate music with festivities and socialization. When it’s time to have fun, we crank up the volume and put our worries behind us; we kick back and relax or put on our dancing shoes for an hour or two, swaying to “feel-good” tunes. However you enjoy your music – whether it’s at a concert with a thousand people or simply tuning out the more unpleasant noises of life in the comfort of your home, it is a pastime that is greatly appreciated by the majority. Music is therefore an element that is usually reserved for the less serious events of the day, unless of course you are one of the lucky people who get to pursue this wonder on a professional level (thank you for making our lives more bearable). So, does this mean that the rest of us need to switch off this simple pleasure of life at the workplace and school?
Music has managed to penetrate almost all areas of our lives. Apart from social situations that call for celebratory tunes, we listen to music on the road, at the gym, in the shower and when we’re doing the laundry. However, all these activities have one thing in common—they are habitual in nature and thus don’t require much focus to do. Therefore, listening to music in the background will not disrupt our ability to go about engaging in automatic tasks. In fact, we are more likely to enjoy those tasks while we listen to our favorite setlist. You could even sing along to the lyrics and it will not effect how well you rinse and repeat in the shower. So what about those activities that do require quite a chunk of our attention? If you are writing an assignment that requires some creativity, how well can you do it without being distracted, or even influenced, by the lyrics you are listening to? What about students cramming for an exam or writing a term paper as they sing along to Pearl Jam? Just how much cognitive load can we handle at once? Several limiting factors come into play, namely that of our working memory. We are only able to store a certain amount of new information at a given time. Everything you do requires attention, particularly if you are learning something new or trying to produce something novel. Coincidentally, it is the level of attention that we need to pay attention to in the case of working and music.
If you are attempting to study the principles of physics while you sing along to your favorite lyrics, both activities will be competing for memory space, and while we are aware of which is more important, our working memory is only interested in sucking in as much information from the environment as we are exposed to at the time. It is then up to us to decide which information is worthy of selective attention, but again, our memory modules will be competing for space either way. Next time you decide to multi-task, just remember that you are using up valuable space. Storage space is not the only problem. The cost of switching between tasks- listening to music and working on a project – is time consuming as well. You may want to reconsider listening to music as you work the next time you have a close deadline.
Another issue arises when you opt to listen to music with lyrics while you read textbook material. This is the concept of cognitive interference. Since you are required to learn whatever it is you are reading, it will be difficult for you to focus on the material at hand if you listen to music with lyrics. Imagine juggling between e=mc² and a fast paced rap (Yeah, right!). For those musical enthusiasts who cannot live without constant auditory harmony at their disposal, do not despair because there is an alternative to not listening to music at all: listen to an easygoing lyricless beat. Just don’t select something that has too much going on at the same time or you won’t be able to focus at all. Save those tracks for the next rave you decide to go to.
It seems safe to conclude that it’s generally not a good idea to mix music and work, however that is not entirely the case. Music is said to have a general positive emotional effect on people and hence help one become more tolerant of their workload. This is consistent with the popular “Mozart Effect”, although this effect is not restricted to listening to Mozart or classical music. Any music one finds enjoyable can suffice. The same applies for music in the workplace. If you insist on playing music as you work on something requiring a lot of attention, then make sure you put together a preferably instrumental, familiar, and ‘light’ setlist that’ll keep you going as you work. If you turn on the radio, however, which will present spontaneous stimuli, you will likely keep getting distracted and struggle to keep your energies focused. If you can find your tempo, you can find your balance of music and work. A surgeon, for example, might well be able to listen to rock music or rap, as long as it is music he is well familiar with and it does not break his focus. His working memory thus can devote its energy to the task at hand—keeping the person in front of him alive. Happy multi-tasking!