The Effects of Sound on Productivity – 2017 Scholarship Winner Stephanie Adams

Sound is a constant presence in any environment. As such, ample research has delved into the effects of background sound on cognitive function and productivity. Many studies indicate that certain types of sound can elicit mind-boosting responses, relaxing the mind and promoting deep concentration. Other studies, however, argue that sound is highly distracting, and detrimental to performance. These conflicting findings probably rise from the number of variables at work, including individual perception of sound (i.e. an annoyance versus a cognitive stimulant), sound frequency, length of exposure time to the sound, individual personality traits, and – in cases specific to musical sound – musical mood, preference and tempo. This discussion on the effects of sound on productivity will address these variables with respect to musical sound and non-musical background noise.

Musical Sound: Distracting or Stimulating?

Because cognitive function is the predecessor to productivity, a plethora of research measures cognitive performance as a function of productivity. Results of a study conducted by Bowden and Wang (2005) suggest that, indeed, measurement of performance on cognitively demanding tasks (as opposed to repetitive or monotonous tasks) in the presence of sound stimuli is necessary to reveal the full effect of sound on productivity. Much of the research specific to music stimuli examines potential roles that personality traits, namely introversion and extraversion, factor into individual responses to background music when completing cognitive tasks. The consensus of such research concludes that extraverts perform significantly better on creative tasks (Furnham, Swami, Terrado, & Chamorro-Premuzic (2009), reading comprehension tasks (Fernham & Bradley, 1997), and visual and audio reaction tasks (Binaschi & Pelfini, 1966) in the presence of background music compared to introverts. Stelmach (1987) reasons that extraverts tend to seek external stimuli to excite their nervous systems, since they are known to have a higher threshold of cerebral arousal. Because these findings extend to the use of irrelevant background noise (as opposed to music) as a distracting factor (Beaman, 2005), Eysenck (1967) reflects this through his theory of arousal: extraverts seek external arousal through highly stimulating conditions (environments filled with activity and noise) in order to attain the level of cognitive arousal introverts receive from silent or non-stimulating conditions. Because no differences were found between introverts and extroverts in silent conditions (Furnham & Bradley, 1997) and introversion and extraversion was the only Big Five personality trait that yielded a main effect on cognitive task performance (Ylias & Heaven, 2003), of importance is the implication that background music generally improves cognitive performance for extraverts, but is generally detrimental for introverts.

Pernham & Vizard (2011) also explore the effects of background music on cognitive performance. They specifically examined the degree to which the participants liked the background music to which they were exposed while completing a cognitive task and assessed their performance. They present both sides of the spectrum: listening to well-liked music before a cognitive task improves mood and arousal, and thus improves performance (Schellenberg, 2005); however, when listening to music while simultaneously performing a cognitive task, the constant acoustic changes present in all music impair cognitive performance (Pernham & Vizard, 2011). Although listening to well-liked music is known to increase positive mood and arousal (Schellenberg, 2005), these studies refute ideas of musical preference as a factor affecting performance quality on cognitive tasks. However, other studies conflict with these findings, suggesting that music that is well-liked by the listener can either improve or impair the listener’s performance on cognitive tasks depending on the extraversion level of the listener. Specifically, extraverts tend to use well-liked music as a means of attaining cognitive stimulation, and thus be less distracted, while introverts tend to use well-liked music as a means of emotional regulation, and thus be highly distracted (Chamorro-Premuzic et al., 2009). Thus, the effect of listening to well-liked music on any individual’s cognitive task performance and concentration levels – and thus their productivity – may be dependent on personality traits of that individual.

Noting the arousal and mood-mediating effects of music, Ting and Kartpagam (2010) highlight the stimulating effects of music tempo. While adequate stimulation improves performance, too much stimulation proves detrimental. Specifically, the ideal stimulation (and best performance) is produced when exposed to music between 120 and 144 bpm, while performance scores begin to decrease between tempos of about 144 to 165 bpm (Ting & Kartpagam, 2010). This points to background music tempo as an additional potential variable affecting productivity levels.

Ambient Noise: Can You Hear Yourself Think?

Other studies have examined the effects of background noise – white noise, environmental sounds, etc. – on productivity. Most research has pointed to negative effects of ambient sounds on concentration and productivity. Landström (2004) and Perrson Way et al (1997) note that environmental sounds of lower frequencies (i.e. ventilators in an office) tend to be irritants, and that long-term exposure to these sounds causes increased aggravation. This, in turn, decreases productivity. This coincides with the findings of Errett et al (2006), who conclude that perceptions of sounds can negatively affect cognitive performance. Notably, Davis (2015) cites research that echoes the aforementioned theory of arousal in relation to introversion and extraversion; although ambient noise proves distracting for most people, extraverts are less affected than introverts, due to their lower sensitivity to stimuli. In discussing impacts on creativity, Davis also echoes the notion that certain levels of background noise may be beneficial to productivity, while too much intensity can be detrimental. As with musical sounds, the effects of environmental sounds on productivity appear to be highly variable among individuals, as well as types of sound stimuli.

As demonstrated, the effects of sound on productivity varies across individuals. Several characteristics of the sound stimulus as well as individual personality traits influence the brain’s ability to complete cognitive and productive tasks in the presence of excess auditory stimuli. Further research is needed to substantiate the reasoning behind these conclusions.

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