One of the questions I often get when I talk about technology and distraction is about music and focus. (This almost always comes up when I speak at schools.) A recent Fast Company piece, building on a survey by sound consultants (and producers of noise reduction systems) Cambridge Sound Management, nicely explains why some kinds of noise are distracting and others aren’t:
Justin Stout, Cambridge Sound Management’s acoustical expert, says noise in general isn’t to blame when it comes to lost productivity. "When we talk about distractions what we’re primarily concerned with is intelligibility," says Stout.
This explains why a TV in an otherwise quiet lounge can be distracting, but the chatter and clatter of a coffeeshop is not:
While it’s easy to make out the words spoken by the broadcaster on the television in the airport lounge, the various sounds in the coffee shop are jumbled together, creating what is frequently referred to as a "hum."
It also explains why different kinds of music are more or less distracting: because we have a difficult time hearing words and not paying at least some attention to them, when you’re concentrating (particularly on writing tasks) it’s better to listen to instrumental music (I’ve become a big fan of movie scores, which can be just a little emotionally engaging but not too engrossing), or vocal music in a language you can’t understand (like Latin, or the Cocteau Twins).