Relaxing background music has been shown to decrease both heart rate and respiration rate, which may positively affect cognitive performance. New research published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement found that listening to three genres of relaxing music (jazz, piano, and lo-fi) may improve cognitive performance.
Research shows that listening to different types of music can improve sustained attention, alertness, and attentional focus. However, other studies show that background music may disrupt cognitive performance (i.e., text comprehension, verbal memory).
For the current study, study author Ulrich Kirk and colleagues were interested in comparing whether different types of relaxing background music could affect cognitive processing and physiological activity. “The study recruited four groups of participants where each group was exposed to one specific genre of music compared to a no-music control group. In a between-group design, the study exposed three separate groups to jazz music, piano music, and lo-fi music respectively. The fourth group was a no-music control group.”
The researchers sampled 108 adult participants with no heart or stress conditions for this study. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of the four experimental groups. The study took place over three days where participants were measured for mind wandering (sustained attention), acute attention, and heart rate variability (HRV). Importantly, participants were measured for acute attention while listening to music and measured for sustained attention after listening to music.
On the first day, participants completed baseline measures of sustained attention and HRV. On the second day, participants were taken to a room, given headphones, and listened to music corresponding to their experimental condition while also being monitored for HRV. They were also measured for acute attention during the last 5 mins of music listening and for sustained attention when the session was over.
On the third day, participants repeated the procedure from day 2 and listened to the same music again. The only difference is that some participants listened to a 15-minute clip on day 2 and then a 45-minute clip on day 3 and other participants listened in the opposite order. Three weeks later, participants came back to complete another 15-minute music session and attention task. Participants were instructed to listen to their assigned piece of music at least 10 times over the three weeks to increase familiarity with the music.
Results show that those who listened to music (regardless of length) had higher performance compared to the no-music control group. Further, those who listened to music (all three genres) showed an increase in performance over the study period for both 15- and 45-minute music sessions.
Similarly, those who listened to music (regardless of length) showed higher HRV compared to the no-music control group. There was an increase in HRV over the study period for those who listened to music, but this increase was observed in the no-music control group as well. These differences were observed for both the 15- and 45-minute conditions.
Results from the follow-up test three weeks later show that those who listened to music had faster reaction times compared to the no-music control group. Results also show that those in the music groups displayed an improvement in reaction time at the follow-up compared to those in the no-music control group who showed no differences. Lastly, those in the no-music control group had the lowest HRV at follow-up compared to the other three music groups.
The researchers cite some limitations to this work, such as not including an active-control group such as rock music. Future research showing that music that is not relaxing can impair performance can boost confidence in these results. Another limitation is not measuring how participants felt about the music they were listening to. Perhaps being fond of music in general can boost performance.
The study, “Effects of Three Genres of Focus Music on Heart Rate Variability and Sustained Attention“, was authored by Ulrich Kirk, Christelle Ngnoumen, Alicia Clausel, and Clare Kennedy Purvis.