listening to music.jpgLast week, I asked on twitter, and then on the blog, about peoples' preferences for listening to music while doing various types of sciencey work, and conducted an informal survey.

Today I'll give you the (entirely unscientific) results, and in a few days I'll share what research has to say about music and work productivity.

Fifty three scientists (or scientists-in-training) completed the survey. I had predicted that music would be preferred in general, but that as language demands of the task increased, music preference overall would decrease. Since I'm doing this at home and don't have SPSS or anything, you'll get some basic descriptive statistics but no significance testing or anything.

When doing some sort of focused analysis:

74% (N=39) preferred music,

21% (N=11) preferred silence,

.02% (N=1) preferred background chatter,

.04% (N=2) preferred podcasts and such.

When writing:

53% (N=28) preferred music,

38% (N=20) preferred silence,

.04% (N=2) preferred background chatter,

.04% (N=2) preferred podcasts and such.

When doing routine, overlearned lab tasks:

58% (N=31) preferred music,

.06% (N=3) preferred silence,

13% (N=7) preferred background chatter,

23% (N=12) preferred podcasts and such.

Figure 1: Scientist preference data, in graphical representation.

Taken together, it appears that, among scientists, there is a strong preference for noise of any kind while doing a routine task over silence. For focused tasks, there is a clear preference for music, but the preference for silence increases (and the preference for music decreases) while the language demands of the task (i.e. writing) increase. This is in accordance with my predictions.

But not all types of music place strong demands on language. For example, instrumental music (whether classical/orchestral, or otherwise) would not intuitively place demands on language, and I suspected neither would music with lyrics in a non-native language, since the lyrics wouldn't be processed as language. For this reason, I asked individuals to rank their preferences among different types of music in the two types of tasks (focused and routine): music with native-language lyrics, instrumental/orchestral music, and music with non-native language lyrics. I predicted that instrumental and non-native language music would rank higher for focused work than for routine work. I predicted that native language music would rank higher for routine work. Again, I will only address the data from the scientists who completed the survey. Forty-two individuals completed these survey items.

Figure 2: Ranked preferences for music, focused tasks.

Figure 3: Ranked preferences for music, routine tasks.

It appears as if my predictions are partially supported. For routine tasks, the clear preference is for music with native language lyrics, as I predicted. For focused tasks, however, the results partially diverged from my predictions. Instrumental music was most frequently chosen for tasks requiring focus, and this is in line with my prediction that music that does not place heavy demands on language would be most preferred for focused tasks. However, a sizable segment of the sample (36%) picked native-language music over non-native language music as their top choice. Only 14% picked non-native language music over native.

It's a little bit tricky to see what's going on in the data by visualizing it this way, so I also generated a graph looking just at the top preferences among each of the three music categories and each of the two task categories.

Figure 4: Top preferences only.

Based on this data, only small minority prefers non-native language music. I suspect that perhaps people are not, in general, exposed to enough non-native language music for this to be a serious contender. Comparing native language and instrumental music, the effect of language demands is clear: as increased focus is required, music without language is preferred. For routine tasks which do not require focus, the language demands of the music appears less important.

This may be due to the perception (even if unconscious) among scientists that music that placed demands on the language faculties of the mind is a distraction, and interferes with their work. When engaged in tasks that they perceive to not demand the availability of the language faculties, the potential interference is not problematic.

In a few days, we'll look at some research that has been done on the question of music and work productivity, and how different types of music may differently affect productivity.