Relaxing background music has been shown to reduce heart rate and breathing, which can positively affect cognitive performance. New research published in Journal of Cognitive Enhancement found that listening to three genres of relaxing music (jazz, piano, and lo-fi) can improve cognitive performance.
Research shows that listening to different types of music can improve sustained attention, alertness and focus of attention. However, other studies show that background music can impair cognitive performance (ie, 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 control group with no music. In a between-groups design, the study exposed three separate groups jazz music, piano musicand lo-fi music respectively. The fourth group was a control group without music.”
The researchers sampled 108 adult participants without heart or stress conditions for the study. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of 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). It is important that the participants’ acute attention was measured 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 that matched their experimental condition while also being monitored for HRV. They were also measured for acute attention during the last 5 minutes of listening to music and sustained attention after the session ended.
On day 3, participants repeated the procedure from day 2 and listened to the same music again. The only difference was that some participants listened to the 15-minute recording on the second day and then the 45-minute recording on the third day, and other participants listened in the opposite order. Three weeks later, participants returned to complete another 15-minute music session and an attention task. Participants were instructed to listen to an assigned piece of music at least 10 times over three weeks to familiarize themselves with the music.
The results show that those who listened to music (regardless of length) performed better compared to a control group without music. Furthermore, 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 also seen in the no-music control group. These differences were observed for both the 15- and 45-minute conditions.
The results of a follow-up test three weeks later show that those who listened to the music had faster reaction times compared to the control group without music. The results also show that those in the music groups showed an improvement in reaction time at follow-up compared to those in the no-music control group who showed no differences. Finally, 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 the music that is not relaxing can violate performance may increase confidence in these results. Another limitation is not measuring how the participants felt about the music they were listening to. Maybe liking music in general can improve performance.
The study, “Effects of Three Genres of Focused Music on Heart Rate Variability and Sustained Attention,” was authored by Ulrich Kirk, Christel Ngnumen, Alicia Klozel, and Claire Kennedy Purvis.