Does music matter?

Music is a common part of everyday life. It can lift our mood, bring us together and even alter how we perceive the world. But how can we really measure the impact that it has had on society, politics and culture? Hm, that's a big question... 

Test your music knowledge with our quiz!

Six Surprising Sounds

Here’s a list of some of the most unusual and controversial instruments and sound-making devices from around the world – which one is your favourite? 

  1. Pungi – aka ‘snake charmer’s flute’
    1. The pungi started life as a traditional Indian folk instrument, which was adopted by ‘snake charmers’ – people who earned money by performing music together with one or more snakes, which often appeared to ‘dance’ to the music. The snakes weren’t actually dancing, though – although they can sense sound, they can’t hear music clearly because they don’t have outer ears. Their movements were actually following the snake charmer’s movement of the pungi, which the snakes saw as a predator. Some snake charmers made their performances safer by covering the animals’ fangs with wax, sewing their mouths shut or removing their teeth altogether. 
    2. In 2003, the Indian government began enforcing a ban on snake charming for animal welfare reasons. This has left traditional performers without an income or a way to educate their children. In this video, BBC journalists interview some former snake charmers about their situation.

  2. Theremin
    1. You might recognise the sound of the theremin from old-school horror or sci-fi films – it’s often used to create an ‘unearthly’ or ‘eerie’ atmosphere. The theremin is unusual in that it is played without being touched by the musician – instead, it has two highly sensitive antennae which pick up on electrical signals from the skin. One antenna controls the pitch of the sound and the other controls the volume. 
    2. In this Sci Show video, Hank Green explains how this works, and gives a demonstration of the creepy sounds that can result!
  3. Bullroarer
    1. Dating back to at least 18,000 BCE, the bullroarer is another unusual instrument. Instead of the player blowing into it, it is tied to a cord and swung very fast around the player’s head. It produces a low-frequency sound which carries a long way, and it can be used for sacred ceremonies or to communicate over long distances. Different versions of the bullroarer seem to have been used by different peoples at various times throughout history, from the Ancient Greeks (who called it a ‘rhombus’) to various indigenous groups in Australia (who regard the instrument as sacred and don’t share their name for it with outsiders, Read more).
    2. In the video below, Oxford University anthropologist Iain Morley discusses ancient musical instruments, and shows how to make a bullroarer using Palaeolithic technology.
  4. Octobasse
    1. The octobasse is a giant (literally – it’s over eleven feet tall) cousin of the cello and double bass. It’s so large that it needs to be played with levers and pedals as well as a bow, and it produces some sounds that are so low they can’t be detected by the human ear. Its purpose is to add extra depth of tone and ‘rumble’ to large orchestra performances. In this video, Colin Pearson from the Musical Instrument Museum in the USA demonstrates and plays the octobasse: 
  5. Sea Organ
    1. The Sea Organ is an experimental instrument located on the seafront in the town of Zadar, Croatia. It uses a system of plastic tubes and a resonating chamber to allow random waves and wind to ‘play music’ to people standing above. In this video, science communicator Jaclyn Friedlander straps on her snorkel to have a closer look at how it works: 
  6. 'The Mosquito'
    1. ‘The Mosquito’ is a high-pitched ultrasonic sound which can usually only be heard by young people under the age of 25. It was originally developed in the UK to discourage young people from loitering or causing a nuisance in shopping centres and other public places. However, young people around the world quickly turned the tables by using the sound to create a secret mobile phone ringtone that couldn’t be heard by most parents or teachers!
    2. This AsapSCIENCE video explains why we lose the ability to hear higher frequencies as we get older:
    3. Some groups, such as the Children’s Rights Alliance, have called for ‘The Mosquito’ to be banned in public places – it has the potential to cause harm to autistic people, who may have hypersensitive hearing, and to very young children who may not be able to move away from the sound or communicate the source of their distress to parents or carers. Read more 

What do you think? Should 'snake charming' be banned in India? Is adults' use of 'The Mosquito' unfair to children? And what about children's use of it against adults?

Do the kinds of sounds that are allowed or encouraged in public places matter in terms of who has a place in society?

Why is music important?

Although women's rights in Afghanistan have been limited since the Taliban's rise to power in the 1990s, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music provides training and education for young women musicians, and runs an all-female orchestra.

We were lucky enough to meet with performers from this orchestra, Ensemble Zohra, when they visited Oxford. Oxplore intern Mick talks with Sameha, Maram and Rabia about choosing your instrument, music as a path to political freedom and the importance of practice!

Why are university graduates more likely to listen to classical music?

Would you rather go to a classical concert or browse a mixtape site? And what does that say about other aspects of your life?

Cultural tastes and practices vary between people of different social positions. But this variation is not random. Sociologist Professor Aaron Reeves, from the Oxford University Department of Social Policy and the London School of Economics, explains why some people are more likely than others to take part in classical music concerts and other cultural events, and how this is linked to social class and income. 


Cultural tastes and practices vary among people in different social positions. But this variation is not random. There is some regularity to patterns of cultural taste and practice across the social strata. Three possible explanations exist.

  1. Attending university may enable someone to move into a more advantaged social position, and education may also affect cultural tastes. University graduates may be more likely to listen to classical music than non-graduates because they have been exposed to it and to other people who like it.
  2. Social class is associated with income and income may provide people with the freedom to enjoy the cultural arts.
  3. A final explanation is social status. High-status occupations increase the likelihood that people enjoy highbrow cultural activities because other people in those high-status occupations also enjoy those activities. That is, cultural taste moves through friendship networks and so people who move into advantaged social positions will become more like their peers in terms of their cultural tastes.

To date, education and social status appear to explain most of the association between cultural tastes and social position. Social class and income seem to be less important.

Cultural tastes, practices and participation

Cultural practices are different. They are not quite like cultural tastes. Saying that you like classical music is not the same as going to a concert hall to hear Beethoven’s seventh symphony.

Participating in the arts requires more time and money than expressing a cultural taste. Moreover, participating in the arts can involve entering into public spaces that have unfamiliar codes of conduct or esoteric modes of communication that can make the uninitiated feel ill at ease.

Cultural practices are not cultural tastes because the barriers to participating in the arts are quite different from the barriers to talking about cultural tastes.

So, although education and social status explain cultural tastes, do they also explain cultural participation?

To answer this question, I examined data on cultural participation, income, social class, education and social status from around 70,000 people. Education remains the strongest predictor of cultural participation, while social status and social class are not as clearly associated.

This is important because government policy is currently concerned with encouraging arts participation, but policies are often based on research examining patterns of taste and not patterns of practice. This may be useful (and necessary) in some cases but it can also lead to mistakes. My research suggests that tastes and practices are not the same and that predictors of one are not necessarily predictors of the other.

Income and cultural taste

But there are still important questions that remain unexplored in this area. Although cultural tastes and income are correlated, it does not explain why. That is, it does not explain the mechanism or process through which this association is generated.

Cultural tastes and income could be correlated because people with high incomes are friends and become more similar over time. In this perspective, Jane may get a new high-paying job and over time change her cultural tastes, becoming more similar to her colleagues. But cultural tastes and income could be correlated because cultural tastes are used as a criteria when deciding whether Jane will get that new high-paying job or not.

This process matters because if cultural tastes are used as a criteria to determine access to high-pay occupations, then this may be one mechanism through which inequalities are reproduced because people with the ‘right’ cultural tastes are more likely to come from more affluent backgrounds.

To some, this cultural reproduction of inequality may seem far-fetched but evidence from both the US and the UK suggests that cultural tastes are being used as criteria to determine entry into high-pay occupations.

This is an important next step in this research agenda. To examine not just the inequalities in cultural practice across society, but to also explain how those inequalities are generated and whether they disadvantage particular groups, constraining their ability to be upwardly mobile in society.

This article first appeared in Arts Professional magazine: our thanks to the editorial board for permitting us to republish this material. Read the original post here

Music and identity

Dr Des Oliver from the Oxford Faculty of Music is currently working on a documentary about Black British musicians and composers. He talks about his own experiences as a classical musician and the issue of cultural appropriation: when is it OK to play music from a culture that is not your own?


What do you think? Do you agree that everyone should have access to all types of music regardless of their background? Try listing some of your favourite types of music -- can you think of any groups of people who might have difficulty accessing or understanding the songs that you like? Why might this be, and what could you do to change it?

Can a song change the world? | 10 key historical moments in music

Can pop songs, hip-hop rhymes and even religious music change the world?

From the official hymn of the suffragettes to 80s and 90s anxieties about AIDS and nuclear war, find out about the political history behind some well-loved songs. Some of these were used by activist groups or people fighting for change, while others reflect shifts in social values and changing opinions.

Content note: Please be aware that this article contains references to slavery and racially-motivated murders.

  1. Amazing Grace by John Newton (1772, published 1779)

    2. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
      That saved a wretch like me..."


    4. John Newton was a slave ship captain who later spoke out against slavery. More than 200 years later, his song is now an important part of the African-American gospel music tradition.


    6. After working in the slave trade, Newton joined the evangelical Christian movement and became a minister. He worked with abolitionists (people working to end slavery) such as William Wilberforce, and eventually published a book in which he apologised for his past activities. Newton went on to testify before Parliament on the need to end slavery.


    8. Newton also collaborated with the poet William Cowper to write hymns, including “Amazing Grace”. The song was very popular in the United States, and eventually became an iconic part of the gospel music tradition. Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that around the world, it is now performed about 10 million times a year!


    10. In this video, President Barack Obama sings "Amazing Grace" at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pickney, who was murdered during a racially motivated mass shooting in the USA in 2015:


  2. Jerusalem by William Blake/Sir Hubert Parry (1916)

    2. "And did those feet in ancient time,
      Walk upon England's mountains green?"


    4. The words to Jerusalem were written by the poet William Blake in 1804. It’s a retelling of the apocryphal (generally accepted as untrue) story that Jesus made a visit to England as a young man.


    6. But it was during some of the darkest days of World War I, in early 1916, that the composer Hubert Parry decided to put Blake’s words to music to create a stirring, optimistic song. It's about creating a “new Jerusalem” – a version of heaven on earth – in “England’s green and pleasant land”. 


    8. And the song’s political significance didn’t end there – Hubert Parry and his wife, Maude Parry, were strong supporters of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1918, Parry allowed the song to be adopted as the official “Women Voter’s Hymn” and donated the copyright to the music to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. It became a key song for groups fighting for women's rights, including the right to vote.

  3. Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol/Billie Holliday (1939)
    2. Image of singer Billie Holliday
    3. Image: Billie Holliday, William Gottleib/Library of Congress, public domain via Flickr.


    5. "Southern trees bear strange fruit
      Blood on the leaves and blood at the root..."


    7. Horrified by reports and photographs of lynchings (racist killings of African-American people), the teacher and poet Abel Meeropol wrote a poem called Bitter Fruit. It describes the bodies of murdered people hanging from trees, contrasting the horror of these deaths with the pleasant sights and smells you would normally associate with fruit trees and springtime.


    9. Meeropol later set the poem to music and performed it, where it came to the attention of African-American jazz singer Billie Holliday. Holliday went on to record the song, and her version sold over a million copies. The song later became a standard of the Civil Rights movement and was named as the ‘Best Song of the Century’ by Time magazine in 1999. Read more

  4. I Wanna Hold Your Hand by The Beatles (1964)

    2. "Oh yeah I tell you somethin'
      I think you'll understand...



    4. As sweet and innocent as it might seem, this song is credited as starting the musical revolution of the 1960s and transformed the Beatles from a relatively unknown English pop band into an international sensation. The band later went on to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, drawing in 70 million viewers in February 1964 —the biggest audience in the history of TV at that time. More than just a pop group, the Beatles' popularity signified the growing importance of youth culture throughout the 1960s.  


    6. In the video below, made in 1964, you can see some examples of how young people behaved at the time:

  5. War by Edwin Starr (1969)

    1. "War, huh, yeah
      What is it good for?
      Absolutely nothing!


    3. War is a protest song which became very popular among young people involved in protesting the Vietnam war. The protestors opposed both the US government's involvement in the war and the policy of drafting young men into the Army (forcing them to do compulsory military service). The song was first written for Motown, an African-American-owned record company, but was popular with a wide range of young anti-Vietnam activists. It has been covered multiple times in the 1980s and 2010s, suggesting that unfortunately its message continues to be relevant in the 21st century. 

  6. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron (1970)
    3. "You will not be able to stay home, brother
      You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out...
      Because the revolution will not be televised.


    5. This piece draws on the slogans and principles of the Black Power movement. It highlights the dangers of mindlessly consuming television and advertising, and imagines a future in which “Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day”. The song also parodies many popular advertising slogans, entertainment programmes and contemporary politicians, pointing out that their concerns and preoccupations are irrelevant in the face of the social injustices facing African-Americans.

  7. 99 Luftballons by Nena (1983)
    2.  "99 years of war
      Left no room for winners
      There are no more war ministers now
      And no more jet-fighters..."

      (German version, direct translation)


    4. Better known in English as 99 Red Balloons, the original German version of this catchy 80s pop hit is much darker than you might realise – it’s a protest song about nuclear war. It was written by the band’s guitarist Carlo Karges, who saw balloons being released at a concert in West Berlin and wondered what would happen if they drifted over the Berlin Wall: would the Soviet authorities in charge of East Germany think the West was trying to attack them?


    6. The song takes this idea further: the singer describes military planes encountering some children’s balloons floating in the air and deciding to shoot them down. The neighbouring country mistakes this for an attack and the resulting war lasts 99 years, destroying the world as we know it. By the final line the singer is standing alone in the ruins, thinking about someone that they have lost and launching a balloon to remember them. Read more​​​​


    8. Did you know: The English version of the song is not a direct translation of the original and the band were not particularly happy with it: they felt it was too light-hearted and silly rather than capturing the tension of the original version. 

  8. Let's Talk About Sex by Salt-N-Pepa (1991)
    1. ​​


    2. "Yo, I don't think we should talk about this."
      "Come on, why not?"
      "People might misunderstand what we're trying to say, you know?"
      "No, but that's a part of life!


    4. You might have heard the shortened, radio-friendly version of this early 90s hip-hop/pop crossover – but did you know that this song also deals with contraception, AIDS and censorship? In the full-length music video, we see the band members rapping about censorship (“Yo, Pep, I don’t think they’re gonna play this on the radio!” “And why not? Everybody has sex!”) STIs and contraception. Visuals show a radio DJ wrapped up in “censored” tape (referencing media restrictions on discussing safer sex and reproductive health at the time) and a skeleton labelled “AIDS” and "censored", linking media censorship on talk about sexual health with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s.

  9. National Anthem of South Africa (1997)

    2.  From the 1940s to the 1990s, South Africa was governed by a system of apartheid that involved white supremacy, rigid separation of different racial groups and oppressive treatment of non-white South Africans. Soon after the last apartheid laws were repealed, people realised that they needed a new national anthem to symbolise the country’s journey towards a new beginning.


    4. For a while they tried having two different national anthems. One was the anthem used by the former government, which was written in Afrikaans, the language of many of the white colonisers. The other was a hymn written in Xhosa (an indigenous language), which had previously been used as an anthem by anti-apartheid groups. However, singing both songs took a long time at the beginning of official events and many people felt awkward about it, so the new President, Nelson Mandela, appointed a committee to create a new anthem. 


    6. The song that they came up with was first performed at the opening of Parliament in Februrary 1997. It was a hybrid, or mash-up, of parts taken from both the Afrikaans and Xhosa songs modified to be more inclusive, plus new lyrics written and translated especially. It uses five languages in total (Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English), symbolising the diversity of the nation.


    8. Click below to listen to it being performed by a range of South African artists, or read more


  10. Same Love by Ryan Lewis and Macklemore feat. Mary Lambert (2013)
    1. Album cover for "Same Love" by Macklemore
    2. Image via Wikimedia Commons
    4. "If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me
      Have you read the YouTube comments lately?"
    6. This pro-LGBTQ-rights song by hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis  was recorded during the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage in the state of Washington. It features vocals by Mary Lambert and tackles homophobia within the hip-hop community and the world. Macklemore said “‘Same Love’ was a song that I wanted to write for a long time but I didn’t know exactly how to address the issue.” During the 2017 campaign for same-sex marriage in Australia, Macklemore donated the profits from Australian sales of the track to the marriage equality campaign. 
    8. Did You Know: The album cover art features a photo of Mackelmore's uncle, John Haggerty, and his husband, Sean!  


What do you think? If you could nominate a song that "changed the world" or reflected changing social ideas and values, which one would you choose?

"Music is a world within itself | With a language we all understand"

- Stevie Wonder

What did Ancient Greek music sound like?

Few people know that Ancient Greek poems were mainly composed to be sung aloud with the accompaniment of instruments. But at the time they were composed, our modern systems of musical notation hadn’t been invented. For a long time, we didn’t know how these songs might have sounded, because fragments of sheet music were only found about 100 years ago. Scholars have learned how to read this notation from about 50 text fragments which have so far been found.

Professor Armand D’Angour from Oxford’s Faculty of Classics has worked with these discoveries to try to reconstruct some of the musical sounds of Ancient Greece – and in this video, you can listen to the results being performed!


What do you think? Does music matter in building our knowledge about cultures and civilisations from the past?

If a historian from the future was trying to understand the 2020s with no surviving record of our music, what kind of information might they end up missing out on?

Why do we sing?

Research published by psychologists Dr Eiluned Pearce (Oxford) and Dr Jacques Launay shows that singing in a group with others can help forge social bonds, as well as exercising the brain and body and potentially raising your tolerance for pain. Find out more about the psychology of singing... 


A decade ago, any mention of a choir would probably have brought Sunday morning hymns to mind. But there’s been a revolution in attitudes towards joining the local choir. Adding well-known, mainstream music to the repertoire, the small screen appeal of television choirmaster Gareth Malone, and the increased visibility of choirs such as Rock Choirand Popchoir, have attracted a new crowd to the idea of the communal singalong. It is estimated that an incredible 2.8m Britons are now members of a choir.

Which is good news – for singing in a choir is beneficial in a number of different ways. We’ve just published some research that reveals that group singing not only helps forge social bonds, it also does so particularly quickly, acting as an excellent icebreaker. We’ve also shown that community singing is effective for bonding large groups, making it an ideal behaviour to improve our broader social networks. This is particularly valuable in today’s often alienating world, where many of our social interactions are conducted remotely via Facebook and Twitter.

But why are so many people flocking to choirs? There’s almost certainly an X Factor effect at play, with people, inspired by TV talent shows, becoming increasingly willing to stand up and perform. It also has long been believed that music-making can create a strong sense of well-being, but since it’s very hard to find a suitable “control” activity, this area is particularly hard to research scientifically.

Although this remains a problem, a number of recent developments have helped us to understand how group singing can improve physical and mental health, as well as promote social bonding.

Cardiff’s Rock Choir. Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB /

Body and mind

The physiological benefits of singing, and music more generally, have long been explored. Music making exercises the brain as well as the body, but singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture and muscle tension. Listening to and participating in music has been shown to be effective in pain relief, too, probably due to the release of neurochemicals such as β-endorphin (a natural painkiller responsible for the “high” experienced after intense exercise).

There’s also some evidence to suggest that music can play a role in sustaining a healthy immune system, by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the Immunoglobin A antibody.

Music has been used in different cultures throughout history in many healing rituals, and is already used as a therapy in our own culture (for the relief of mental illness, breathing conditions and language impairment, for example). Everyone can sing – however much we might protest – meaning it is one of the most accessible forms of music making, too. Song is a powerful therapy indeed.

Regular choir members report that learning new songs is cognitively stimulating and helps their memory, and it has been shown that singing can help those suffering from dementia, too. The satisfaction of performing together, even without an audience, is likely to be associated with activation of the brain’s reward system, including the dopamine pathway, which keeps people coming back for more.

The psychology of singing

Singing has also been shown to improve our sense of happiness and wellbeing. Research has found, for example, that people feel more positive after actively singing than they do after passively listening to music or after chatting about positive life events. Improved mood probably in part comes directly from the release of positive neurochemicals such as β-endorphin, dopamine and serotonin. It is also likely to be influenced by changes in our sense of social closeness with others.

Increasing evidence suggests that our social connections can play a vital role in maintaining our health – a good social network, for example, can have more health benefits than giving up smoking. So it’s possible that singing can improve health by expanding our social group. Indeed, the rapid social bonding that choirs encourage could therefore be even more beneficial.

Even if we don’t necessarily talk to everyone in our choir, we might experience a general feeling of being connected with the group, leading to our sense of increased community and belonging.

Breaking ice. Benjamin Kralj/

Our choral ancestors

Being part of a cohesive group has been essential for survival throughout our evolutionary history, but being part of a group also raises challenges, such as conflict over resources and mates. In order to survive, our ancestors needed ways to keep the group together through these conflicts.

Music is found in all human cultures around the world. The oldest bone flute is 40,000 years old, so music has been around at least this long. This, and the fact that music often occurs in social settings, from religious rituals to football games, suggests that music might be an evolved behaviour for creating community cohesion.

In Western societies, music-making is often thought to be the domain of a talented few, but very few people actually have no musical ability. The growth of community choirs open to anyone demonstrates these inherent skills and suggests that we are returning to the origins of communal musical behaviour. In light of mounting concerns about loneliness and isolation and the increasingly urgent search for solutions, it is fascinating that people seem to be returning to an interest in connecting with one another through singing. The evidence indicates that our singing ancestors might have held a key to better social well-being.

Singing provides an inclusive and cost-effective means of combating the disintegration of communities that is becoming endemic in many societies today. So whether you’re more into chamber music, the Beatles or Frozen singalongs, finding the right choir could prove the perfect way to improve your health, well-being, and social life.


This article was originally published on The Conversation under the title "Choir singing improves health, happiness – and is the perfect icebreaker". Click here to read the original version. 

How does music affect our sense of taste?

Professor Charles Spence, from Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology, researches crossmodal perception - the ways in which our senses of touch, taste, smell, etc. can be affected by each other.

In this video he describes how people's experiences of eating a seafood meal could be enhanced by playing specific sounds of the sea, and discusses how disrupting the balance between the senses can ruin our experience of watching a film or eating a meal:

This research can be used for all sorts of purposes -- as well as working with famous chefs such as Heston Blumenthal to create amazing restaurant experiences, Professor Spence has also worked on problems such as how to present hospital food in a way that will encourage patients to eat more of their meals, and how to present food in a way that will discourage people from overeating. Read more

What do you think? Does music matter when looking for ways to improve people's health and wellbeing?

Can music help us concentrate?

Music can do great things for our health and happiness -- but does it help us to concentrate better on our work?

It's complicated: certain types of music may help you focus on certain types of tasks, but in other scenarios having music playing in the background can make it harder to concentrate! Cardiff Metropolitan Universtity's Dr Nick Perham explains... 


Many of us listen to music while we work, thinking that it will help us to concentrate on the task at hand. And in fact, recent research has found that music can have beneficial effects on creativity. When it comes to other areas of performance, however, the impact of background music is more complicated.

The assumption that listening to music when working is beneficial to output likely has its roots in the so-called “Mozart effect”, which gained wide media attention in the early 1990s. Put simply, this is the finding that spatial rotation performance (mentally rotating a 3D dimensional shape to determine whether it matches another or not) is increased immediately after listening to the music of Mozart, compared to relaxation instructions or no sound at all. Such was the attention that this finding garnered that the then US governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, proposed giving free cassettes or CDs of Mozart’s music to prospective parents.

Subsequent studies have cast doubt on the necessity of the music of Mozart to produce this effect – a “Schubert effect”, a “Blur effect”, and even a “Stephen King effect” (his audiobook rather than his singing) have all been observed. In addition, musicians could show the effect purely from imagining the music rather than actually listening to it.

So researchers then suggested that the “Mozart effect” was not due to his music as such, but rather to people’s optimum levels of mood and arousal. And so it became the “mood and arousal effect”.

Unfortunately, the situations in which most mood and arousal effects are observed are slightly unrealistic. Do we really sit and listen to music, switch it off, and then engage in our work in silence? More likely is that we work with our favourite tunes playing in the background.

Distracted at work. Pressmaster/Shutterstock

How sound affects performance has been the topic of laboratory research for over 40 years, and is observed through a phenomenon called the irrelevant sound effect. Basically, this effect means that performance is poorer when a task is undertaken in the presence of background sound (irrelevant sound that you are ignoring), in comparison to quiet.

To study irrelevant sound effect, participants are asked to complete a simple task which requires them to recall a series of numbers or letters in the exact order in which they saw them – similar to trying to memorise a telephone number when you have no means to write it down. In general, people achieve this by rehearsing the items either aloud or under their breath. The tricky thing is being able to do this while ignoring any background noise.

Two key characteristics of the irrelevant sound effect are required for its observation. First, the task must require the person to use their rehearsal abilities, and second, the sound must contain acoustical variation – for example, sounds such as “n, r, p” as opposed to “c, c, c”. Where the sound does not vary much acoustically, then performance of the task is much closer to that observed in quiet conditions. Interestingly, it does not matter whether the person likes the sound or not. Performance is equally as poor whether the background sound is music the person likes or dislikes.

The irrelevant sound effect itself comes from attempting to process two sources of ordered information at the same time – one from the task and one from the sound. Unfortunately, only the former is required to successfully perform the serial recall task, and the effort expended in ensuring that irrelevant order information from the sound is not processed actually impedes this ability.

A similar conflict is also seen when reading while in the presence of lyrical music. In this situation, the two sources of words – from the task and the sound – are in conflict. The subsequent cost is poorer performance of the task in the presence of music with lyrics.

What this all means is that whether having music playing in the background helps or hinders performance depends on the task and on the type of music, and only understanding this relationship will help people maximise their productivity levels. If the task requires creativity or some element of mental rotation then listening to music one likes can increase performance. In contrast, if the task requires one to rehearse information in order then quiet is best, or, in the case of reading comprehension, quiet or instrumental music.

One promising area of the impact of music on cognitive abilities stems from actually learning to play a musical instrument. Studies show that children who are being musically trained show an improvement in intellectual abilities. However, the reasons behind this are, at present, unknown and likely to be complex. It may not be the music per se that produces this effect but more the activities associated with studying music, such as concentration, repeated practice, lessons and homework.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Click here to read the original article

Does music matter?

  • People have invented a wide range of wild and wonderful musical instruments

    From the earliest bone flutes and bullroarers carved from wood to high-tech noise-making devices such as 'The Mosquito', human beings around the world and throughout history have come up with a wide variety of innovative ways to create music and sound!

  • But what kinds of sounds are allowed in public spaces?

    Sounds such as 'the Mosquito' can be used to try to control people's behaviour in public places, which many people see as unfair -- especially when harm might be caused to vulnerable people such as very young children. Meanwhile, governments might restrict certain types of music performance, such as the banning of 'snake charmers' in India: what effect does this have on people's ability to support themselves?  

  • Music can be linked to major political and social change

    Songs can be a way of talking and helping people think about major social and political issues, like the Civil Rights movement, safer sex during the AIDS crisis, and same-sex marriage in the 2010s. And for people living under repressive conditions, like the young women of Ensemble Zohra, music can be a pathway to self-expression and freedom.

  • But some people have more access to certain kinds of music than others
    As sociologist Professor Aaron Reeve’s research shows, your income levels and your educational background affect whether you’re exposed to classical music from a young age, which might impact your ability to enjoy it later in life. Composer Dr Des Oliver, who works with Western and Indian classical music, argues that it’s important for everyone to have access to a wide variety of musical traditions whatever their background.
  • Music can have powerful positive effects on the brain

    Psychologists have lots to say about the benefits of music! Dr Eiluned Peace and Dr Jacques Launay discuss the ways in which taking part in group singing can make us happier, healthier and more connected to others. Studies conducted by Professor Charles Spence show that music can change how we perceive food, making you experience tastes and smells differently depending on what kind of sounds you're hearing - which could help people to keep portions in check and make sure they're eating the right amount.

  • But it doesn’t necessarily help us concentrate

    … Although studies such as Dr Nick Perham’s have also shown that it doesn’t always help us focus, especially if we’re working on a task that requires us to understand or memorise new information.