Listening to relaxing music can improve cognitive performance, according to a study

Relaxing background music has been shown to decrease both heart rate and breathing rate, which can positively affect cognitive performance. New research published in Journal of Cognitive Enhancement found that listening to three types 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. However, other studies show that background music can disrupt 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 a specific type of music compared to a control group with no music. In a between-groups design, the study exposed three separate groups jazz music, music for pianoand lo-fi music respectively. The fourth group was a control group without music.”

The researchers sampled 108 adult participants without heart disease or anxiety for this study. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups. The study was conducted 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 post listening 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 also measured acute attention during the last 5 min of music listening and sustained attention when the session ended.

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 heard a 15-minute clip on day 2 and then a 45-minute clip on day 3, and other participants heard in the reverse order. Three weeks later, participants returned to complete another 15-minute music session and attention task. Participants were instructed to listen to the assigned piece of music at least 10 times over three weeks to increase familiarity with the music.

The results show that those who listened to music (regardless of duration) performed higher compared to the no-music control group. Additionally, those who listened to music (all three genres) showed an increase in performance over the study period for 15- and 45-minute music sessions.

Similarly, those who listened to music (regardless of duration) showed higher HRV compared to the no-music control group. There was an increase in HRV during 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 min 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. The results also show that those in the music groups showed an improvement in tracking reaction time 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 in 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 Attribution can enhance confidence in these results. Another limitation is not measuring how participants felt about the music they were listening to. Perhaps loving music in general can enhance performance.

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

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