Will Background Music Improve Your Concentration?

In today’s modern society everyone is looking for ways to improve their productivity. Time is shorter than ever but demand for output has never been higher. Fortunately there are hundreds of tweaks we can make to improve our working environment, and an understanding of our own psychology can conceivably double our concentration levels. This article will discuss current research on the effect of music on concentration and then carry out its own study on music with personality types as an independent variable and their effect on performance.

Michel (1999) cites Zuckerman (1994) who discusses the optimum level of arousal, which is the level of arousal that people work best at. A person with a low optimum level of arousal works best with reduced stimulation from the environment, whereas someone with a high optimum level of arousal requires more stimulation from the environment. This study investigates this in terms of extroverts and introverts task performance with background music as arousal.

Eysenck’s hypothesis that introverts have higher cortical arousal than extraverts, and therefore require less stimulation from the environment to achieve their optimum level of arousal is cited and supported by Stenberg et al (1990). They found higher levels of blood flow into the temporal lobe in introverts than extroverts.

To study this issue in terms of an everyday situation, a television distraction with introverts and extraverts was studied by Furnham et al (1994). A comprehension task showed both groups performed better in silence, but that when completing the task with a distraction, extraverts outperformed introverts. Campbell and Hawley (1982) studied students in a library and found extroverts locate themselves where there is greater external stimulation when they study. This supports the arousal theory suggesting they require more stimulation to learn.

A common form of exterior arousal comes from music, which is often played as people work and may affect performance. Geen (1984) found extroverts chose music with a higher noise intensity than introverts during learning task, but when at the same intensity introverts were more aroused than extraverts. Furnham & Bradley (1997) investigated the effect pop music has on introverts and extroverts. They found immediate memory recall was worse for both groups when pop music was played than when it was silent, however there was no difference in performance between the personality types. In the delayed response condition extraverts’ recall was higher than introverts. Furnham & Strbac (2002) found effects for a comprehension task with music as background noise, where extraverts outperform introverts.

A Study…

Previous studies only investigate the overall affect of music on performance. This study investigates whether different types of music (familiar, unfamiliar and silence) affect recall performance in a comprehension task and whether there is a difference in performance between extraverts and introverts in the conditions. The hypothesis for the music condition is silence will show the best performance and familiar music (as it is more arousing than unfamiliar music) will show the worst performance based on Furnham & Bradley (1997) findings that both personality types perform better in silence than with music. The hypothesis for performance between personalities is extraverts will perform better than introverts in the music conditions due to increased arousal and introverts will perform better in silence.

A further aim is to see whether having music in the background or not is the most successful method for people to work. If people say they work with background music but perform this task better in silence, they can change and become more successful. Furnham & Bradley (1997) showed that people who found music distracting while working are less likely to work with the radio on. They cite also Etaugh & Ptasnik (1982) who found that people who usually work with music perform better when music is played and people who study in silence perform better in silence. The hypothesis is people who usually listen to background music while working will perform better in the music conditions than those who do not.

The aim of this study was to investigate whether different types of background music affect people’s performance in a comprehension task, and to see if there is a difference in performance between introverts and extraverts in each music condition as the arousal theory suggests. An additional aim was to find out if whether participants usually listen to music while working affects their task performance. The participants were students and consisted of 40 introverts and 67 extraverts. They participated in a comprehension task with multiple choice answers, in three types of background music; familiar, unfamiliar and in silence. They also completed the EPQ-R-A personality test, and were asked how often they listen to music while working.


This study showed performance differed when the background music changed. Performance was best in the silent condition and worst in the familiar music condition, therefore the first hypothesis is accepted. There was no difference in performance in any of the conditions between introverts and extraverts, therefore the second hypothesis is rejected. There was no difference in performance in any condition between people who usually listen to music while they work and those who do not, meaning the third hypothesis is rejected.

These findings support Furnham et al (1994) and Furnham & Bradley’s (1997) findings that performance of both personality types is better in silence than with background music.

This study’s results do not support Eysenck’s arousal theory cited by Stenberg et al (1990) due to the extraverts not outperforming introverts in the music conditions. A possible reason for this could be the volume the participants set the headphones to was not monitored. Although they listened to the same music, introverts may have lowered the volume, while extraverts may play it louder to be at their optimum level of arousal meaning both groups perform the same. This study also does not support findings by Furnham & Strbac (2002) that extraverts outperform introverts when there is music in the background. However, Furnham & Bradley (1997) also found no difference between introverts and extraverts in an immediate recall task when pop music was played. The findings suggest extraverts studying in busy areas of the library in Campbell & Hawley’s (1982) study would do better studying in silence as both groups performed better in that condition.

The findings that how often music is listened to does not affect performance in any condition does not support Etaugh & Ptasnik (1982) that people perform better in their chosen condition. However as silence had the best overall performance it would still be advisable that people work in silence.

The EPQ-R-A is a reduced form of the personality questionnaire. This did not affect the reliability. Francis et al (1991) compared results to the long version across four countries and concluded that it is an adequate and reliable replacement for the longer version.

This study has good ecological validity as background music is common and sometimes unavoidable in everyday life while working, and the music will not always be familiar. This investigated the affect it has on productivity while taking in to account individual differences and whether exposure to the situation is a regular occurrence. The confounding variable that people may have lied in the questionnaire was addressed by comparing the lie scale to the extraversion ratings. This showed people were not lying and increases internal validity. The time limit imposed for each slide ensured participants were affected by the background music. If they were allowed as long as they wished they could keep re-reading the paragraph as many times as they wanted to get the right answer and music effect would not be measured.

A problem with the music is the assumption that the familiar music is familiar. It can not be guaranteed participants have heard it before. This could be overcome by having a selection of music and getting each participant to choose one that is familiar to be played for that condition.

The participant’s personality type should have been assessed before the study, then an equal amount of introverts and extraverts should have been selected to participate. The median split on the extraversion results labelled the top half extraverts and the bottom half introverts. This does not make them introverts or extroverts, it just means they are comparatively introverted or extroverted compared to other people in this study. Using the same method the same participant in another study may be classed the opposite personality type to what they were in this study. Their should be a pre agreed cut off point in the scale, where whichever side you fall is your personality type regardless of the other participants.

A future study could examine the biological states of participants from each personality type while conducting this task to test the arousal theory. People could be used as an external arousal to make it more true to life.

These findings suggest that people will learn more when revising for an exam or perform better at work if tasks are performed in silence regardless of personality type, and frequency of listening to music when working does not affect performance. So to conclude: no, listening to music unfortunately won’t increase your concentration.

Comments 18
  1. I was wondering about this actually because I realized something was off when I studied with background music. Comprehension was somewhat affected. Inconsistency with the extrovert and extravert threw me off just a little. Great read though! Thanks!

  2. This seems to be a great article, but I was wondering how do I found out more details about this particular article.

    What I'd really like is to have a reference for this article in a harvard-referencing system if possible.

  3. The content contained in the article seemed bias without proper control, it needs more information and proper references.

  4. I don't mean to say the article was poorly written (it was not fantastic, but sufficient), but rather to say that the study is flawed. Critically so. There are two fundamental problems that make the entire study seem rather useless: there is no differentiation between the types of work being done. In some jobs there are portions of work that benefit from silence and some that benefit from the stimulus of music. Anecdotal case in point: if I am stuck on a problem, and need deeper understanding to get around a solution (initial research into a new network protocol implementation… e.g. strategies for adjusting TCP window size to prevent buffer bloat on the network) silence is apropos. However if the tools of construction are entirely within my understanding, familiar music actually makes me work faster. Things line up and seem to pop into place. This brings me to my next point: the line in this article that refers to the fact that the familiar music may not be familiar or that being familiar is not the same as being important. ("A problem with the music is the assumption that the familiar music is familiar.") In other words, I may know of a Shakira song (then it would be familiar by all dictionary definitions of the word) enough to even know the lyrics, but it is not the same as listening to (say) an Archers of Loaf album which recalls feelings and perhaps the quick pace makes me feel creative. I know both songs, but there is one that would be much more inspiring to me for personal reasons. Basically, these two things make it seem like the study was too broad and borderline useless. Sorry.

  5. Looks like an undergrad essay or short class assignment, not the work of a professional. Assumptions & conclusions not adequately justified. Citations incomplete.

  6. I am doing a science fair project like this and I find your experiment to be somewhat misleading. The results vary based on that fact of what kind of work it is. For work that involves remembering things and doing questions, I agree with your conclusion and hypothesis. But if the work is repetitive work that requires less thought, like my experiment tested, I found that the music actually stimulated the participant. Whether it was the tempo that had stimulated them or something else, I don't know. I think for this experiment "productivity" is too general of a term to be used.

  7. "If people say they work with background music but perform this task better in silence, they can change and become more successful."

    Provided actual silence would be among the options actually available, then yes. What most people, removing their headphones, will hear, is more likely fans, phones, talk, printers, copiers, feet, cars and so on.

    Perhaps comparing performance in distracting noise to performance when music is masking out that noise would offer a more realistic model of the present world. Maybe background music, while worse than golden silence, would then turn a lesser evil than inescapable distracting noise.

  8. Next time you make a study, use musicians and non-musicians as a variable to your experiment. Musicians tend to listen to music in a more profound, appreciative way. When I listen to music as I study, if the song appeals to me even though I have never heard it before, I tune into the acoustics of the song and get distracted.

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