"Homework in the Digital Age" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by ransomtech
It's hard to avoid music these days. It's pumped out in every shop, cafe, mall, hotel and gym and often I find it hard to concentrate on what I really want to do; talking with friends or reading if I'm on my own. Many places can't turn off the music because they get sponsored by local radio stations to play that particular station all day long whether the customers like it or not. We seem to have an acute fear of silence and so they play often extremely irritating music while you're having your hotel breakfast or trying to have a pleasant evening meal. TV and radio seem to think that certain types of programmes have to have music while someone's talking, such as every nature programme about sharks always has heavy metal music in the background or reports from many sports events have "cool" music so you can hardly hear the voiceover (maybe this is an age issue). Don't get me wrong, I love music and listen to it many hours a day but the important point is that I want to listen on my terms and not have it forced on me. Even if they play music I like I get irritated because I don't want to hear it right now.
So what about music while you're working? Does it really help us concentrate as many suggest? This is discussed in a Guardian article, Does music really help you concentrate?, and it seems to be a highly personal issue. If the task we're trying to focus on is not particularly interesting then any other stimuli will divert our attention: people passing by, any noise, conversations and especially the siren's of social media inviting us to check out what's happening. So we have some music in the background to somehow block out other distractors.
The trouble is, while our conscious attention is focused on the task in hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. And if what we’re doing is unpleasant or dull – so you’re already having to force your attention to stay fixed on it – the unconscious attention system is even more potent. This means that a distraction doesn’t need to be as stimulating to divert your attention on to something else.
If it's someone else's music then I can't work at all and generally will move somewhere where I can be in peace. The crucial factor with background music is that it has to be self-inflicted. Whatever music the owner/employer selects will irritate someone so maybe the solution in the future is BYOM (Bring Your Own Music); listen to whatever you want as long as you do it with a headset and don't disturb anyone else. This is bad news for commercial radio stations but the fact is that most of us simply don't want to hear them.
I generally have calm classical music in the background when I'm working, preferably baroque, but I'm not sure if it helps me concentrate at all. I just put it on to create a cosy atmosphere. I've also tried discreet background music like Brian Eno or Philip Glass that just meanders quietly without ever really grabbing my attention and therefore perfect for purpose. Anything with a catchy rhythm or songs with lyrics I understand are impossible. However I suspect that silence is still the best precondition for really concentraing on a task and that our desire for music is simply a false consolation. How can we help youngsters who have grown up with a headset permanently hanging round their neck that silence is important? Many are so convinced that they need music that they've never even contemplated the alternative.
What about you?