Many of us listen to music while we work, thinking that it will help us to concentrate on the task at hand. And in fact, recent research has found that music can have beneficial effects on creativity. When it comes to other areas of performance, however, the impact of background music is more complicated.
The assumption that listening to music when working is beneficial to output likely has its roots in the so-called “Mozart effect”, which gained wide media attention in the early 1990s. Put simply, this is the finding that spatial rotation performance (mentally rotating a 3D dimensional shape to determine whether it matches another or not) is increased immediately after listening to the music of Mozart, compared to relaxation instructions or no sound at all. Such was the attention that this finding garnered that the then US governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, proposed giving free cassettes or CDs of Mozart’s music to prospective parents.
Subsequent studies have cast doubt on the necessity of the music of Mozart to produce this effect – a “Schubert effect”, a “Blur effect”, and even a “Stephen King effect” (his audiobook rather than his singing) have all been observed. In addition, musicians could show the effect purely from imagining the music rather than actually listening to it.