We wrote this thesis on rock 'n' roll
It’s one of those afternoons – I’m on the third cup of coffee, my code is throwing errors, and my eyes are slowly starting to take the shape of the computer front of me. My lab mates are happily working away, you can hear typing noises and the gentle hum of productivity in the room. In those moments when I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall, only one thing will get me back on track: music. What kind you ask? This varies greatly, depending on my mood, the task at hand and the menace of the looming deadline.
Sometimes only old school hip hop will do the trick. I put on my headphones, very nonchalantly nod to “No Diggity” and start typing again (almost hitting the keyboard to the rhythm of the song). My lab mates may snicker at this, but Blackstreet, Dr. Dre and DMX have saved the day again.
As a scientist, I cannot help but wonder if listening to music while we work really makes us more productive. The literature, as is so often the case, reads a bit contradictory. While I certainly feel a lot more sophisticated when I am listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, does it also make me more productive and can it help me focus on my work?
Famously, a team of researchers in the 1990s claimed that listening to Mozart, as opposed to sitting in silence, would improve participants’ abilities on a task that required them to mentally construct shapes. However, as I have written in a previous post, some psychological studies are never replicated or massively overestimate effects due to methodological problems (such as not recruiting enough participants).
Indeed, Forde-Thompson and colleagues followed up this “Mozart effect” paper in 2001 showing that when they controlled for other factors such as arousal and mood elicited by the music, the Mozart effect disappeared. It turns out that the piece in the original study was inherently more energetic and joyful than simply sitting in silence, and the mood and arousal induced by the music explained the effect on the participants’ improved task performance.
Listening to background music while you are focusing on another task certainly puts some strain on your working memory. One study showed that people with better working memory capabilities were less distracted by background music, however, listening to music didn’t have any positive effect on these participants’ recall on a memory task (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017).
While it remains debatable whether music can actually help you study and work more productively, the emotional response that your favorite song evokes is undeniable. When I get myself out of these slumps, this is exactly the kind of positive boost I am experiencing. Researchers have found that listening to your favorite songs, the kind of music that sends “shivers down your spine”, enhances the activity of brain regions associated with reward and pleasure (Blood & Zatorre, 2001).
Maybe it’s time to soundtrack some other aspects of academic life as well. Your paper was rejected? Wallow in the pain for a little bit and crank up Johnny Cash’s iconic cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”. You received a ‘revise and resubmit’? Gloria Gaynor is there to empower you to rise up to reviewer 2:
At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along
Paper accepted? Code debugged? Grant proposal submitted? Now is the perfect moment for “All I do is win” by DJ Khaled.
So what do I listen to at the moment? I took a look at my Spotify account, and with a little help of some nifty software, I was able to plot my current top 20, by the year the album was released and their overall popularity on Spotify. The songs I am currently listening to on repeat include some Queen, Billie Eilish and the Cranberries (and interestingly it looks like Billie Eilish currently takes the popularity crown among my top 20).
Below this post, I have compiled a few of my favorite ambient noise generators and Spotify playlists which I turn to when I am looking for something light on lyrics. I tend to play songs on repeat, especially when I am writing, as that takes the focus away from the music’s deeper meaning.
Maybe you are listening to one of these playlists already, or can recommend even better ones? What’s your thesis playlist? Let us know on Twitter by tagging us (@PGRblog) or using #mythesisplaylist.
Ambient noise generators
Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(20), 11818-11823.
Lehmann, J. A., & Seufert, T. (2017). The influence of background music on learning in the light of different theoretical perspectives and the role of working memory capacity. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1902.
Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, C. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365(6447), 611.
Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological science, 12(3), 248-251.
Header image: Photo by Stas Knop from Pexels