Music: Preferences, Uses and Distraction

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Music: Preferences, Uses and Distraction

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is. (Noel Coward, Private Lives, 1945)

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast. (William Congreve, The Mourning Bride, 1700)

Psychologists have been interested in music for over a century. They ask questions about the musically talented and the best way to teach music. They are interested in musical taste and different reactions to music. They attempt to classify music from a psychological, rather than a music store, point of view. Also they are interested in music in the workplace as well as in the commercial environment.


People ’use’ music for many purposes. Some are interested in it from a cognitive processing point of view. They are interested in the technicalities of composition and performance. Many are interested in how people use music for emotional regulation: to use music to induce moods, lift depression, to make them want to dance, to encourage mystery and awe. Equally importantly people use music as distraction: to keep them more awake when driving or performing a tedious task.


There are many ways of doing this such as: reflective and complex, intense and rebellious, upbeat and conventional, energetic and rhythmic. A more recent classification is:

1 Sophisticated: Classical, opera or jazz.

2 Contemporary: The current mainstream genres such as pop music, rap, electronic, trance and so on. Using modern techniques and equipment.

3 Intense: Loud, forceful, energetic music such as rock, punk and heavy metal. More rebellious music.

4 Mellow: Smooth and relaxing music styles, as well as blues, soft rock, R & B and soul music.

5 Unpretentious: Sincere and rootsy music, such as country, folk or singer-songwriter genres. World music.


Does music help in the workplace? Are people more or less productive when there is background music? The questions are:

What music: fast vs. slow, vocal vs. instrumental, familiar vs. novel, chosen by whom?

The results suggest that the most distracting music is that which is loud, fast, vocal and familiar. This can cause people to very seriously lose their concentration.

What tasks: simple vs. complex, individual vs. group, cognitive vs. manual, memory?

Music distraction occurs most when you are trying to do a complex, language task like proofreading, analysing text or committing material to memory.

What people: personality, ability, values?

We know that extraverts are less distracted than introverts, young people are more distracted than old people, and musicians are most distracted when their instrument is being played.

Music at work is always distracting. Since the 1920s it has been believed that certain forms of distraction (i.e. music) may facilitate productivity on particular tasks (e.g., assembly line tasks). It has been observed that school children often choose to do tasks (such as homework) in the presence of television, radio, CD/records or other distractions.

Music was advocated as beneficial in the workplace but serious researchers concluded that feelings of euphoria during periods of music stimulation have a physiological basis, which is evidenced by changes in blood pressure that occur in some participants while listening to music. Instrumental, rather than vocal, music is preferred during working hours by the majority of workers. There is a negative correlation between age and preference for work music. Young, inexperienced employees, engaged in doing simple, repetitive and monotonous tasks, increased their output when stimulated by music.


Commercial organizations have not been slow to see the financial rewards of using music in shops, restaurants, banks, etc.

In one study a supermarket played either stereotypically French or German music on alternate days for a fortnight in the part of the shop selling wine. They measured the amount and type of wine bought in this period. French music led to more sales of French wine and German music to a preference for German wine. Interestingly, when questioned, customers were unaware of the music and its potential effects on their product choice. Not quite subliminal selling, but not far from it.

In another study either classical, pop or no music at all was played in a British restaurant over the course of nearly three weeks. Researchers measured time and money spent, the latter being broken down between drink and food. The customers spent more time and money (on starters and coffee, but not booze) when the classical music was playing.

In another study researchers played classical, ’easy listening’ or no music in a bank and a bar and customers were asked to rate the overall atmosphere of the two places. The more they liked the music, the better they evaluated the atmosphere on three dimensions and the more they were prepared to pay for products on sale in the bar. But other things also made a difference and these included the volume of the music and the time of day. However much one likes certain music there is clearly an optimal level.

In another study, researchers kept callers waiting on the phone, playing them either a selection of songs by the Beatles, played either in the original or with Pan Pipe recordings, or one of those ’please hold, the line is busy, you are in a queue…’ messages repeated every ten seconds. They measured how long people were prepared to hold and also their liking for the music played. The Pan Pipes came out top. People were prepared to hold longer with music they liked over a minute longer than the ’sorry caller’ repeat. On-hold music affects holding on!


Furnham, A. & Strbac, L. (2002). Music is as distracting as noise. Ergonomics, 45, 203—17.

North, A. (2014). The Social Psychology of Music. London: Routledge.

Oldham, G., Cummings, A., Mischel, L., Schmidtke, J., & Zhan, J. (1995). Listen while you work? Quasi-experimental relations between personal-stereo headset use and employee work responses. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 547—64.

Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Levitin, D. J. (2011). The structure of musical preferences: A five-factor model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 1139.