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A musical mystery

by Michael Nielsen on September 23, 2003

Why is it that music can help us concentrate and avoid distraction?

Iíd forgotten this until recently. I now understand again why so many people wear headphones while they work. What I donít get is why music has this effect.

A hypothesis is that when we lose our focus, our brain searches for something to fill the attention gap. Often, it does this by changing the focus of attention to some other distracting activity. If music is playing, perhaps we distract ourselves with that, as the nearest attention filler. After a few moments, our original focus begins to return, and we can pull ourselves away from the music, especially if it is relatively undemanding of attention. I don’t know of a good way to test this hypothesis.

From → General

  1. When I was in high school I didn’t have a physics class and so I taught myself physics for the AP exam. When I was studying for the exam, I had just bought this CD, Dire Straights “Brothers in Arms” which I really really loved. I would listen to this every single time I studied for the physics exam. And I pretty much never played the CD outside of studying for this exam.

    Later, when I went to Caltech, I was sitting in my dorm room and I put in the “Brothers in Arms” CD. Immediately I had this amazing desire to work on physics. On the one hand this is a great trick and I’ve had many of my students use this trick to great effect. On the other hand, I like to think of myself as a little more sophisticated than one of Pavlov’s dogs.

  2. What a lovely trick!

    I wonder if athletes etc use this kind of trick to achieve peak performance?

    It might, in part, explain the various lucky charms etc that they often wear — basically, a way, perhaps unconsciously, of getting themselves into the same frame as mind as at some successful prior event.

  3. An interesting phenomenon I’ve observed re: music as a distracting focus [or focusing distraction] is that of the perfect volume level. I have music on in the lab, I like having music on when I play poker, and I certainly like to have music to fall asleep to. In all cases there’s a narrow range of volume that is tolerable- too much, and I can’t concentrate (obviously), but what’s not so obvious is that when the volume’s in the range between detectable and critical I’m driven to distraction by involuntarily paying strong attention to the music. Strange stuff.

    (What I’ve never really thought about, though, is whether the critical volume is different for music as opposed to, say, a baseball game…)

  4. Re Nathan’s comments: I find a similar effect, in that the music I listen to while working needs to be music I’m pretty familiar with. If not, I end up being distracted by the novelty of the music. If it’s familiar old stuff, it’s okay.

  5. I absolutely have to have some sort of background noise when I’m doing just about anything. Music is the best, but just about anything will work– radio, television, whatever. I’m not especially picky about what kind of noise it is, but silence drives me batty.

    I think it’s an issue of patterning. When it’s quiet, any sort of noise– electronic things beeping, birds squawking, normal creaky house noises– becomes incredibly distracting, because it comes as a surprise. It’s a break in the pattern. When I’ve got music playing, though, it drowns out most of the small incidental noises, and the fact that the music is patterned keeps it from being a distraction.

    The one flaw in this theory is that the only thing worse than near-total silence is a quiet room containing a loudly ticking clock. I’m not sure how to make that fit the “patterned noise” theory.

    (Nice blog, by the way.)

  6. I’ve always thought that music was a tool to keep part of your brain busy so that you could concentrate on the important items at hand. At least thats what it does for me. Without music my mind will wander frequently and then I’m open to all sorts of distractions, but with music I think that rather then ignoring the distractions I just don’t give myself a chance to see them.

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