Working With the Music On: How to Pick the Right Music for the Right Task

by Veka Pramesthi

This article is a form of response to LTTW’s previous Your Thoughts which raises the question, “Can We Listen to Music Whilst Do Other Things?” The writer, in this case, tried to dwell in a more specific angle, which is what is really going on in our brains , and what the impact to it, when we are working (specifically in an urban, office environment) while listening to music.

As a counter-thought to the article, however, we need to look at this issue from other perspectives as well. One is how the music listening itself has had a long history of changes and development—especially those triggered by technological developments, more particularly since the Industrial Revolution—so that it could be practiced and enjoyed as it is today. From this standpoint alone, we need to realize that for thousands of years, before the presence of a tape recorder, music listening can only be possible when the audiences were near or in front of the performing musicians; then it shortly changed, when music has been able to be presented in the form of physical and digital recording, and just in a span of hundreds of years, music listening can now be experienced personally, wherever, whenever, and whatever we want. 

New behaviors during the latter times, including having listen to music while driving, working, shopping, swimming, even sleeping, have combined to bring the issue of the term “listening” itself, which led to question: would such behaviors give the same effect to the brain as much as when we listen to music while not doing anything else? What if it turns out to be different? Should it be coined merely as “hearing”? [Ed.]

[Jakarta, LttW] Have you ever wondered about the reason why you work better or worse when you’re listening to music with or without your headphone? A recent article I read on Quartz.Com written by Adam Pasick has brought a more detailed explanation as to why certain types of music will help us in increasing the level of productivity, and while others distract us more from accomplishing our tasks.

Before I get into details, I’d like to share a picture of the different brain centers that we each have, and what effects do music actually have on each one of them.

Listen to the Brain. QUARTZ.DOC
Listen to the Brain

The first thing that we need to understand is that once we put our headphones or turn on our speakers, music immediately starts entering our auditory cortex, where the first stages of listening to sounds, the perception, and, analysis of tones occurs. The activation of each of our different brain centers depends on whether the music is new or familiar, happy or sad, in minor or major key, or–specifically and most importantly, for work purposes–whether or not it contains any lyrics.

Why do lyrics matter? We need to remember that when we listen to music, we are basically multitasking. When we listen to music with lyrics, the cognitive resources that we need to accomplish certain tasks such as reading, memorizing, and writing, will decrease or cease entirely. One of the reasons behind that is because the brain’s language center will try to decipher all the words we’re hearing so we can understand it. Moreover, lyrics in songs may also trigger certain feelings or memories that are stored in our brain, thus adding another task onto it. So, if you’re working on wrapping up word-related tasks such as composing an email, writing up a daily reports, it’s highly recommendable that you listen to music without lyrics or music with lyrics that uses languages you don’t understand, that has a steady rhythm and mood. Research has shown that constant, simple music that doesn’t have a lot of complexity, and emotional highs and lows, has the most positive effects in enhancing simple cognitive skills.

In a research paper titled “Music—an aid to productivity” written by J.G Fox and E.D. Embrey that was published on Applied Ergonomics journal in December 1972, they wrote, “A series of experiments has investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry. The studies show that music is effective in raising efficiency in this type of work even when in competition with the unfavorable conditions produced by machine noise.” From this citation, I draw an assumption that when you are faced with a repetitive task in a noisy room full of people chattering or machines running, putting on a happy and upbeat tunes might help take you work better, faster, and more focused.

You can also put your playlist on shuffle or go to websites such as Spotify, Pandora, or Rdio (which are not available yet outside US and Europe), where they offer new music you might like based on your preferences for streaming purposes. It is mentioned by Pasick that the brain thrives on predicting the future; so, throwing some randomness into the mix, might just be the right action, as it can reward you with a surge of the pleasurable neurotransmitter dopamine. Imagine the groundbreaking thoughts and ideas you can come up with afterwards.

There is music that you can use to tap into the power of music to trigger emotional responses. Everybody pretty much has some kind of an “anthem(s)” that they use to bring them into a certain type of mood, mindset, or state of being. If you have trouble starting your day at work, perhaps it’d be good to find a song—whether familiar or completely new—to lift your energy and set you to the right mood. Or if you’re about to go to an important meeting, faced with a challenging task—better yet, accomplishing it—an anthem can empower you, giving you more confidence, and encouragement, bringing you the kind of positive energy you need, enabling you to spread it to others around you.

Nevertheless, even though music has its advantages, it is important to remember that playing music all the time can take the benefit of music away entirely; in addition to the fact that some tasks are better to be done in silence, as we sometimes need our cognitive resources to be undivided. The 1972 study has mentioned that when working on a complex managerial task, or contemplating on making major business decisions, it is recommended that you isolate yourself from anything that can be distracting, including music itself.

Personally, I don’t work well with music on, because I ended up listening to the music and thinking about it more when I should be focusing on gathering my thoughts and doing my tasks. Maybe I listened to the wrong kind of music back then? I’m actually trying to put into practice what the article had said as I’m writing this article, and I ended up listening to the ancient solfeggio music, because everything else I’ve tried listening to has either made my thinking and writing slower or put me entirely on hold J.

In conclusion, listening to music at work has both its benefits and downsides. However, as Adam Pasick has written, the key is in finding the right balance; choosing your music carefully, and match your tunes to the task. Now that we have this information we may well be on our way to finding the right set of music that can help increase the level of energy, productivity, and efficiency at work. Happy experimenting!

Do you find yourself working more productively or efficiently when you listen to certain types of music, or would you rather work in silence but still with or without your headphone on? If you’d like to share your thoughts, experience, or even your work playlist, please do not hesitate to write it down in the comment box below.

My Struggling to Find Music’s Relation to Films

by Veka Prameshti*

[Jakarta, LttW] Recently I read news about Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross doing another film score for David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ – a movie adapted from a novel written by Gillian Flynn that tells a story about a couple’s dark marriage. Well, little surprise that David Fincher chose the duo to do the film score, as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are very well-known for creating music that brings out the dark, mysterious, thrilling, gloomy kind of ambiance that puts the audience on edge while watching movies in which they score the music (e.g, ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, ‘The Social Network’).

I’m no expert in this, but you may call me music and film enthusiast who is struggling to find the relation among music and films; and that leads to the questions, how do Mr. Reznor and Mr. Ross response to Mr. Fincher’s movie? If I’m referring to Keith Negus’s thinking, in which music alone could construct a variety of images within our mind, what would actually happen when those images are ‘reduced’ to a single image—or a scene in this case—belongs uniquely to the director? And vice versa, if an image could ‘speak’ loud enough already, why would a director needs music anyway?

Let’s take silent films as an example; Michel Hazanavicius’s film ‘The Artist’ (2011) might suit the criteria. As a non-audible moving picture, the audience have no way of knowing the tone in which the actors are speaking in; in this case, the audience rely solely on the moving visual, and the actors’ acting to present the story that is being told. In my opinion, however, those two are not enough. In order for a story to be captured and understood by the audience, a movie needs a way to communicate what facial expressions and written texts cannot. This is where music comes in; it made a whole lot of sense to me with the language of music throughout the film.

One of the scenes of ‘The Artist’ (2011)

Another case comes from the Disney’s animated film ‘Fantasia’ (1940), which seems quite the opposite with what music does to silent films. In ‘Fantasia’, music turns out to be the point of departure, before later responded by the story and the visual. The film consists of eight animated segments set to pieces of classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski; seven of which are performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (Wikipedia). As far as I can remember, ‘Fantasia’ is all centered on the story and animation, while music is at the peripheral; and I was wrong. However, the thought that classical music fits perfectly with the animation, remain the same. In fact, it has become my habit to visualize classical music with films in general; a good example might be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, and the legendary John Williams who scores for the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ trilogies.

Excerpt from ‘Fantasia’ (1940) featuring The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky.

Music surely does a lot of things to films; it creates ambiance, sets the tone of the movie, imply the sense of space, create contradictions, giving direction of emotion, and so on. Music also expresses, highlights the intangible and invisible aspects in a movie. All in all, it helps as well as enhances the story telling process. However, my view may seem very music-oriented—and it doesn’t feel right; then I assume, this must be related to the artistic and symbolic understanding on both sound and visual symbols, in which I’m lacking of.

In search of a good explanation on the relation between music and film, I was borrowed a copy of “Popular Music in Theory” (Keith Negus, 1996) from a friend, and found the semiotic connections between sound and visual as analyzed by Andrew Goodwin. “For Goodwin, video images had not simply been imposed on a musical song but had been drawn out of the music due to the way that the music itself carried certain meanings and signified in various ways,” as recalled by Keith Negus. “Goodwin suggested that the sound-image relationship could be approached via the distinctions between icon, index, and symbol.” (see the box below)

Referring to the above account, I assume that within the general conception of the sound of films, music—or commonly termed as the original soundtrack—is just one of the determinant factors to give sound to films, or in other words, to communicate the story to the audience. Else there are atmospheric sound effects, audible dialog, etc. Again, I have to have enough understanding on the visual symbols as well to get to know the relation among these two. Knowing that cultural context is one of the prerequisites, I must understand the history behind whatever musical genres and visual symbols a film director may use; then I would start to comprehend the core message of a film.

Disappointingly, I often fail to consider that films are basically an interdisciplinary work in which moving images and sound should be experienced as one. Furthermore, after being introduced upon Sacred Bridge’s thoughts and analysis on cultural creations such as movie— in which one possess a great deal of inter-mechanism works among literature, acting, visual arts, fashion, sound, music, technology, and so on— then my short of references regarding all of those fields had determined how I appreciated any movie creation.

Most of the greatest movies in history aren’t just great because of the good actors, or directors, or composers. They are great also because they had the perfect teamwork to tackle such disciplines involved. For music, they need composers who are able to create the right symbols, which would allow the audience to feel, connect, and engage in the story told through motion pictures. At last, I will not be able to entirely drown in the feeling of intense suspense or fear in the movie ‘Silence of the Lambs if it weren’t for the music composed by Howard Shore, who also worked on ‘The Lord of The Rings’ Trilogy, ‘The Aviator’, ‘Hugo’, ‘The Departed’, ‘Doubt’, just to name a few.

In conclusion, for a motion picture to have profound effects on the audience – not only does it need to have a great cast and crew; on top of it all, it requires the audiences’ awareness and understanding on all of those ‘unspeakable’ meanings, carried thorough musical and visual symbols. So, good luck with the struggle, folks!


*Veka Prameshti is our newest local contributor regarding issues around music and arts.