VCU professor, alumni received national award for research surrounding music, productivity

Student Chris Berczek listens to music while using the Cabell Library's computer. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Katrina Lee, Contributing Writer

VCU alumna Kathleen Keeler was inspired to conduct research about the effect of music on productivity after witnessing music’s effect on productivity in a work environment and in her own personal work experience.

“After my undergrad, I got an internship at this small consulting firm where everyone there listened to music while they worked. It was so nice,” Keeler said. “It changed the work environment and how we interacted with each other. From there, I got interested in music’s impact on productivity and wanted to know more.” 

Keeler, now a professor at Ohio State, partnered with Jose Cortina, a VCU management and entrepreneurship professor, to research this topic. The findings were published in a 2020 article titled “Working to the Beat: A Self-Regulatory Framework Linking Music Characteristics to Job Performance.”

The article, which analyzes the effect of music characteristics on job performance and productivity, has received national recognition. This year, it won the Academy of Management Review’s 2021 Best Article Award, which is a yearly award given out to one article that “has a clear and important contribution to the field of management,” according to the Academy’s website.

The article also explores music characteristics, such as key, musical complexity, tempo and volume, and the effects they have on executive functions, such as inhibitory control and working memory. 

“The journal in which the paper was published in is considered to be one of the best journals in the field of management,” Cortina said. “It’s really an honor to have been chosen for this award.”

Inhibitory control is described in the paper as the capacity to focus on a certain subject while deterring other temptations. Working memory is using short-term memory to achieve a goal, according to the paper.

“The music I listen to tends to fluctuate. I usually prefer something acoustic or instrumental. Sometimes it helps me focus, but certain types of music can be distracting,” said freshman graphic design student Benjamin Wood.

The article further explains the impacts on these executive functions and if they lead to positive or negative effects on productivity and performance outcome. For example, “music that is slow and/or played at a low volume likely facilitates working memory but impairs inhibitory control because these characteristics lead to low arousal and expanded attention.”

“We propose that music influences executive functions by affecting attentional breadth. The resulting breadth of attention, in turn, fuels executive control over the cognitions and behaviors that lead to performance,” Keeler and Cortina stated in the article.

Keeler and Cortina said that they conducted a systematic review of existing research on cognitive psychology, neuroscience, music in medicine and more. They then connected that research to what they knew about organizational sciences.

“We were able to combine existing research pertaining to those two fields to make connections and draw propositions,” Keeler said.

The report also discusses how listening to certain types of music can negatively impact productivity during different types of tasks such as complex tasks, routine tasks, idea generation and vigilance and quality-control tasks. 

Vigilance and quality-control tasks are tasks that require “extreme focus and sustained attention,” according to the article.

“For some kinds of tasks, some kinds of music are helpful while other kinds of music can be harmful for productivity,” Cortina said. “This paper delves into music’s effects on those different kinds of tasks.”

Listening to music while studying can help with memory and energy, and provide stress relief, according to an article by Colorado State University

Freshman graphic design student Benjamin Wood said he listens to music when he studies, and that sometimes it does help him focus while other times it doesn’t.

“The music I listen to tends to fluctuate. I usually prefer something acoustic or instrumental. Sometimes it helps me focus, but certain types of music can be distracting,” Wood said.

Freshman art foundations student Noah Birkeland talked about how he likes listening to lo-fi music while trying to actively read, and indie rock or alternative if it’s homework that doesn’t require close attention.

“Music doesn’t really distract me, only if I am doing something really mentally strenuous or if the music itself is especially distracting,” Birkeland said.  

Keeler and Cortina hope that this article will help organizations gain an understanding of music’s effect on productivity, which may lead to them using music as a means to enhance task  outcomes. 

“I think it offers an opportunity for employees to really think about what music is best for them based on the guidelines that we offer, such as how higher key music produces positive emotions,” Keeler said. “This will also hopefully convince managers it’s okay that people are listening to music at work because they are probably able to focus better.”

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