A new study has found that when we’re young, we can listen to music and concentrate on remembering information, but as we get older, the music acts as more of a distraction than anything else.
The link between music at our workplace and cognitive function hasn’t really been studied much in the past, which is strange when you think about it, because it’s such a common component of many office environments. Whether it’s the radio humming ineffectually in the corner, or a series of tunes being carefully curated by the resident ‘music expert,’ most of us are pretty used to having it around as we work.
So researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US decided to investigate if environmental music is having an effect on how we work. They gathered a group of young, university-aged volunteers, and older adults, and asked them to perform a series of memory tests while sitting in silence, or listening to music.
The exercise tested their associative memory skills, and involved being shown a series of faces and names, and being asked whether the face looked like they belonged to an assigned name. As in, ‘Yeah, he looks like a Don.’ Having done this once, the faces and names would be run though again a few minutes later, and the participants would have to remember if the combinations they were now being shown were the same as they were before.
Sometimes the test was performed in silence, and other times, while music was playing in the background. The music would range from something as innocuous as musical rain to what the researchers described as 'non-lyrical rock music’, such as lesser-known songs from Eric Clapton, Jefferson Airplane, and Rush. (Or, to the university-aged volunteers, ‘Who?’.) While performing the memory test, the volunteers had to rate how distracting they found each type of music to be.
The researchers found that, even though they complained about the music being more distracting than the silence, the university-aged participants had no problems performing the memory tests. There was no discernible difference in their results between the two scenarios. But when it came to the old adults, they ended up remembering 10 percent fewer names when performing the task to music, or the musical rain.
"Despite the fact that all participants rated music as more distracting to their performance than silence, only older adults’ associative memory performance was impaired by music,” The team reports in the journal The Gerontologist. “These results are most consistent with the theory that older adults’ failure to inhibit processing of distracting task-irrelevant information, in this case background music, contributes to their memory impairments.”
Two factors could be at play here - the first is as we grow older, we get progressively worse at focussing our attention on one thing while tuning out distractions. It’s linked to a theory known as the ‘cocktail party effect’, which gets its name from the ability to focus on one conversation while navigating a sea of concurrent conversations. Research has found that the ability to filter out background stimuli actually peaks in young adulthood, and gets worse with age.
The second factor is that research has also shown that as we age, our associative memory declines too, so it’s even harder for older adults to perform the task, especially when their ability to drown out the music is also sub-par.
The researchers say research like this is important for those who run offices and senior living centres to keep in mind. "They should be mindful of their surroundings. Maybe employees should turn off music during learning activities or hold them in a quiet room,” one of the team, psychologist Audrey Duarte, said in a press release. "Similarly, older adults who struggle to concentrate while meeting with co-workers at a coffee shop, for example, should schedule meetings in quieter locations. When people get lost while driving, it's probably best to turn off the radio."