Listening to Relaxing Music Can Improve Cognitive Performance, Study Finds

Relaxing background music has been shown to decrease both heart rate and respiratory rate, which may have a positive effect on cognitive performance. New research published in the Cognitive Enhancement Journal 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 attentional focus. However, other studies show that background music can disrupt cognitive performance (i.e. text comprehension, verbal memory).

For the current study, study author Ulrich Kirk and colleagues wanted to compare 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 a specific genre of music compared to a control group with no music. In a between-group design, the study exposed three separate groups to jazz, 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 problems for this study. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups. The study took place over three days during which participants were measured for mental 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 listen 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 relevant to their experimental condition while also being monitored for HRV. They were also measured for acute attention during the last 5 minutes of music listening and for sustained attention when the session was over.

On day three, participants repeated the procedure from day 2 and again listened to the same music. The only difference is that some participants listened to a 15 minute clip on day 2 then a 45 minute clip on day 3 and other participants listened in reverse order. Three weeks later, participants returned to complete another 15-minute music session and an attention task. Participants were asked to listen to their assigned piece of music at least 10 times over the three weeks to familiarize themselves with the music.

The results show that those who listened to music (regardless of duration) performed better compared to the control group without music. Additionally, those who listened to music (all three genres) showed increased performance over the study period for the 15 and 45 minute music sessions.

Similarly, those who listened to music (regardless of duration) showed higher HRV compared to the control group without music. There was an increase in HRV over the study period for those who listened to music, but this increase was also seen in the control group without music. These differences were observed for the 15 and 45 minute conditions.

Follow-up test results three weeks later show that those who listened to music had faster reaction times compared to the control group without music. The results also show that those in the music groups displayed improved tracking reaction time compared to those in the control group without music who showed no difference. Finally, those in the control group without music 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 relaxation can odd performance can build confidence in those results. Another limitation is not measuring how participants felt about the music they listened to. Maybe liking music in general can improve performance.

The study, “Effects of Three Targeted Music Genres on Heart Rate Variability and Sustained Attention,” was authored by Ulrich Kirk, Christelle Ngnoumen, Alicia Clausel, and Clare Kennedy Purvis.



Listening to Relaxing Music Can Improve Cognitive Performance, Study Finds

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