Background Music Pleasure or Pitfall?

Reading time
2 min read
Andrew Ng playing piano

Dear friends,

Years ago, whenever I had to do something boring or unpleasant — such as drive to work or go for a run — I used to listen to music to provide a distraction. Although I still appreciate music, as I got older I decided to cut out distractions. As a result, I’m more likely to sit in silence and enjoy being alone with my thoughts, or use the time more purposefully to learn something from an online course or audio book.

Many people listen to music while studying or working. When is it helpful, and when is it distracting? People enjoy music — with good reason — and tend to have strong opinions about it. But some research shows that playing background music while trying to solve problems reduces creativity. Many people in the internet era are used to constant stimulation: scrolling of social media, consuming online news, filling empty hours with TV or video games. But finding quiet time when you can mull over your ideas remains an important part of being creative.

To be fair, the findings of research into the effect of music on cognition are mixed. For example, music sometimes improves mood, which in turn leads to better cognitive performance. Music also can drown out background noise that otherwise would be even more distracting. But I’ve found that when working, driving, or exercising, I prefer not to have any distractions and am happy to be left with my own thoughts. Since I stopped listening to music while driving, I’ve noticed that I’m much more likely to end the drive with new ideas for things I want to do.

Does this mean you shouldn’t listen to music? Of course not. Listening to music for sheer pleasure is a worthy use of time as well. But now I use music for enjoyment rather than distraction.

In addition to listening, one of my favorite ways to take a break from work is to play a piano (not very well!), sometimes with my daughter Nova in my lap providing accompaniment via a random banging on the keys. This serves no utilitarian purpose, but it puts me (and her) in a good mood, and I certainly plan to keep up my efforts to play!

Keep learning,

Andrew 🎵


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