Music Helps Focus Attention, Work More Efficiently
October 16, 2013

Whistle While You Work (Out)

Michael Harper for – Your Universe Online

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have just taken the side of the seven dwarfs in the Disney film Snow White. According to these scientists and their colleagues, music makes physical labor easier and focuses the attention of the worker rather than distract them. This can also hold true for those lifting weights, running or doing some other kind of exercise. Fast, driving tunes don’t merely distract one from their toil, say the researchers. Music can actually reduce the effort needed to perform the work, an important discovery for those looking to understand the relationship humans have with music, as well as those researching the ways to incorporate music into physical therapy.

Though we’ve been using music and singing as a companion to work and toil for thousands of years, it wasn’t understood how this helped or even if it did. Some argued that music simply helped pass the time and allowed those doing the work to be distracted by something else. Max Planck scientist Tom Fritz set out to answer these questions and, with a team of researchers from other organizations, devised a series of tests to determine not just the physical effects of music, but the neuroscientific effects as well.

In one of the first tests, volunteers were asked to perform a series of workout routines on fitness machines while music played passively in the background. In the second round of tests, the volunteers were once again asked to work out on the machines, but this time they were a part of the music. The fitness equipment had been rigged to begin playing music as it was being used, and each turn, each lift, each repetition made with the equipment triggered another sound to make up a larger piece of music. During both tests the scientists recorded data such as heart rate, oxygen intake, and muscle tension. The volunteers were then asked to rate their level of exertion as they went through their workout.

Anecdotally, the volunteers rated their exertion much lower when they were in charge of making the music they were listening to. The scientists were surprised to find, however, that during the same exercises, the volunteers’ muscles truly were exerting less energy than those who worked out with music merely playing in the background. Because the muscles weren’t being exhausted so quickly, they worked more efficiently, said Fritz.

“This implies that the developed technology is more [favorable] as a new athletic sports technology, presumably because more emotionally driven motor control occurs with the musical ecstasy.”

In other words, because the exercisers felt they weren’t exerting too much energy, they were able to more efficiently work out certain parts of their body and get more out of these training sessions physiologically.

“These findings are a breakthrough because they decisively help to understand the therapeutic power of music,” said Fritz in a statement.

According to a 2011 study, music could also be beneficial for those looking to get creative in the fields of math and science. A study conducted by the Music Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech set out to understand how music could be applied in the fields of computer science, statistics and more.

“One of the difficulties of teaching math and science is that it quickly becomes very abstract. You have to have points of reference that people can relate to and it becomes much easier. So, whether we’re talking about teaching basic mathematical concepts, or designing experiments, you can design experiments around music,” explained Parag Chordia, director of the music lab at Georgia Tech.