Right to Quiet Society Noiseletter
Winter 2014, page 3

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commercial settings, where shoppers are increasingly focused on written adverts, product labels and health advice.

The new study is by Professors Bill Thompson and Glen Schellenberg, two experts in the field of music psychology who can be counted on to design a well controlled and realistic test of musical effects. Their article is called ‘Fast and loud music disrupts reading comprehension’ and as you might expect, they find pretty much what they say in the title! But here are some of the details.
The authors discuss in their introduction how trying to multitask with music in the background has two different effects on our minds: 1) cognitive capacity effects and 2) arousal-mood effects:

1. Cognitive Capacity Effects: We have a finite capacity for processing information from the world around us, and if you play music then you occupy some of this capacity leaving less room for other things. The result is cognitive interference, which means that the amount of information we effectively process goes down and our mental performance deteriorates. However, the point at which cognitive interference begins depends on the difficulty of the two tasks.

2. Arousal-mood Effects: Music can directly influence our level of psycho-physiological arousal (on a continuum from feeling very sleepy to feeling wide awake) and our mood. A great deal of psychological evidence suggests that cognitive motor benefits are associated with enhanced mood and arousal.

So there you have it; two competing forces. One that suggests background music can impair performance and one that it can boost performance. The question is then, how do you strike a balance? What factors force the balance to move towards either the negative or the positive end of the performance spectrum?

In the present paper the authors test the hypotheses that fast and loud music can force our performance spectrum away from the positive arousal-mood effects and towards the negative cognitive capacity effects. The authors chose Mozart music for their music. An apt choice, as I noticed this week when flying to Denmark that a certain airline has taken to playing Mozart when passengers are boarding (and are probably expected to read their safety information!). The authors manipulated speed by playing the music at either 110 beats per minute (bpm) or 150 bpm. They manipulated loudness by playing the music at 60 decibels (db) or 72.4 (db). They tried all possible combinations of those two factors, leading to four conditions (fast/quiet; fast/loud; slow/quiet; slow/loud).

In the experiments participants completed a reading comprehension task, specifically the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), which is a popular test to use for these sorts of studies. You read a 500 word section and then answer 6 multiple choice questions that assess your comprehension of what you have just read.

They found that performance with music in the background was similar to baseline reading performance (i.e. without music) in three out of the four conditions, but significantly worse in the fast/loud condition. Slow music had no effect when it was played at either volume; the fast music was fine in the quiet condition but detrimental to mental performance in the loud condition.

What does this mean? The findings support the suggesting that background music listening has the potential to disrupt our mental processes by consuming more of our finite attention resources than we can afford to spare from the task in hand. The authors suggest that increasing the volume of the faster music draws more attention to the greater number of auditory events taking place per second and makes them harder to ignore.

At the end of the day our auditory system evolved to focus and study the sounds in our environment in order to en-sure we survive (so we can immediately alert to the roar of that lion in our midst!) and we have not yet evolved the capacity to ‘switch off’ this alert system, which assumes that when something is loud it deserves our attention.

Because reading comprehension in the present study was unaffected by slow, classical music the authors predict that disruptive effects on reading comprehension would be similarly limited to fast and loud music from other genres, although this has yet to be tested directly. And of course you must also consider the personality of the listener, their music listening experience, as well as their intelligence and memory. All these experiments are yet to be done and hold promise for exciting insights into how our cognitive system and arousal-mood system battle it out to produce optimal levels of mental performance and focus in our environment.

The final message from this study is that it is important to consider the volume of the music played in business environments, when the music in question is of a speedy tempo – if we want our workers and customers to engage in written material and comprehend important messages then it is best to keep background music level at a reasonably quiet level (at or below 60db, according the present evidence).

Link to article

Apps for Apes

Dr. Suzanne MacDonald, a psychology professor at York University, has been working with the Toronto Zoo's orangutans. She says her experiments with developing Apps for the iPads have shown that orangutans don't distinguish music from random sound, seem to prefer silence to music, and have a narrower range of hearing than humans.
CBC link

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