Which sounds should we play for productivity – music or nature?

Have you ever noticed when you are driving with music playing, or your children are chatting in the back as you drive to a new place, you quickly turn the music down or ask the kids to be quiet? Why do we need quiet to do new things and, conversely, why do we find having music on motivating when we are doing old or repetitive tasks?

All big questions, and in this study, the researchers wanted to know how different background sounds impacted on the completing of tasks. Here is what they found.

“Any time there is background noise, our brain actively works to filter it out–with the largest effect for fluid, outdoor sounds like vehicle traffic … We were able to change brain activity during a cognitive task in a noticeable and reproducible way, simply by playing outdoor sounds in the background … These findings show that our environment affects how we perceive the world around us–and means that much of what we know about the brain is oversimplified since it has primarily been researched in a laboratory setting.”

Two things to take away from this last statement are 1) how often or quickly do we notice how the background noise is affecting us and our productivity and 2) how important is the “real world vs lab environment” factor in the application of the research to our everyday behaviours and learning activities?

Let’s go back to turning the music down when we are driving to a new place. A person will likely make this step instinctively, but if you ask them afterwards why they did it, they may not immediately recognise that they were taking control of their sound environment to enhance their concentration. So in answer to the first takeaway, we might be more productive if we paid more attention to our sound environment.

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In the second takeaway, the “real world vs lab environment” factor, it could be very important to not only read the research findings but also consider if the research was conducted inside or outside the lab environment. As teachers, who work in noisy, bustling schools, where intense and continuous learning is meant to be happening, background noise may not always be considered in the learning process.

So next time you reach for your music playlist to accompany your class activities, think about playing a background track of nature or outdoor sounds and see what happens.

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