Music Isn’t Distracting — If You’re Young

Senior man listening to mp3 player.
Photo: Tomas Rodriguez/Corbis

Different people have different views on whether playing music in the background is a help or a hindrance during intellectually engaging tasks. Some people claim to have no problem getting productive reading or writing done while listening to music, for example, while others find it to be so distracting that they say it degrades the quality of their work.

Overall, there’s been somewhat mixed evidence on this question: The once-touted “Mozart Effect,” a phenomenon in which listening to classical music was linked to a performance boost on certain sorts of mental tasks, hasn’t really stood up to scrutiny. Other studies, though — albeit ones centered on rather simple tasks — have appeared to show a benefit to background music in certain circumstances.

In addition to this ambiguity, there’s also a lot we don’t know about how age factors in, and that’s what a team led by Sarah Reaves of Georgia Tech honed in on in an article recently published in The Gerontologist. For the study, the researchers recruited 103 healthy participants, about half between 18 and 30 and half between 60 and 75, who were asked to complete a task that involved memorizing name-and-face pairs.

Some of the participants completed both the memorization and retrieval portions of the task while listening to jazz, blues, classical, or electronica music (without lyrics — there’s reason to think music with lyrics could inhibit people’s ability to complete a task like this), while others completed the task in silence. Those who listened to music were asked afterward to rate how distracting they found the tunes to be.

Overall, both young and old participants rated the presence of music as distracting. Only among the older ones, however, was there also an attendant dip in their performance on the task among those in the music group (older people also performed poorer on the task than young ones overall, which the researchers expected).

So: Why? One possibility is that young people have more experience attempting this sort of multitasking given how common smartphones and other portable music devices are these days. But, Reaves and her colleagues write, the results of another study that a different team published last year suggest that this explanation can’t “fully account for” the age divide. What’s more likely, they write, is that older people are less able to filter out “distracting task-irrelevant information, in this case background music,” as compared to younger ones. That information may have disrupted their ability both to encode memories of the face/name pairs in the first place and then to retrieve them a short time later.

This is just one study in an ongoing area of research, and it focused on just one sort of task, so you can’t draw any big conclusions from it. But it suggests that those people who are able to work productively while listening to music may want to enjoy that ability while it lasts.

Music Isn’t Distracting — If You’re Young