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Multitasking and listening to mood music

When you’re feeling blue, put on a sad song. Getting in the party spirit? Turn up the dance music. We are all well aware that music can fit our mood and even reinforce certain emotions. Now, researchers at Philips Research in The Netherlands have demonstrated that background music can affect our mood even while we are directly focused on another task. Their work, described in the International Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics might have implications for those investigating the benefits of music therapy, music in the workplace, commercial environments or even in healthcare.

Music is almost ubiquitous for many people, they listen wherever and whenever and with modern portable electronic gadgets it is almost impossible to be without one’s music collection even when on the move; at least until the batteries are expended. Music is often the primary activity at any given time, listening for pleasure and relaxation. It is well known that music can strongly influence a person’s mood under such circumstances. However, what was not entirely clear from previous scientific research was whether music can influence mood so significantly if it is being played in the background, secondary to a person involved in another activity.

Marjolein van der Zwaag and Joyce Westerink specialists in human perception and interaction with technology have now observed participants in sequential experiments in which people were first asked to listen to happy or sad music while doing nothing or solving a Sudoku puzzle. They also did the Sudoku with no music as a control. Later, they were asked to listen to the other type of music under the same conditions. The team measured changes in the participants’ skin electrical conductance and tension in facial muscles during the experiments as indicators of changing mood. They also interviewed the participants to obtain a more subjective but personal view of each individual’s mood.

The team found that participants’ mood responded to the different kinds of mood music – happy or sad – in approximately the same way regardless of whether listening to the music was the person’s focus or simply background sound to their solving the puzzle. The team suggests that mood music might thus be useful in calming or energising a user even when they are involved in an independent task, at work, in school or in other situations, such as driving, for instance.

Research Blogging IconZwaag, M.D.V.D. & Westerink, J.H.D.M. (2012). Inducing moods with background music, International Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics, 1 (2) DOI: 10.1504/IJHFE.2012.048035

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