top of page

An Investigation on Effects of White Noise & Music on Cognitive Tasks Performance using Eye-tracker

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

By Xinru Li from the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, Guangzhou, China.


In workplaces and schools, various types of background sounds accompany people in their daily work and study. This study takes an innovative approach of using eye-tracking to explore the impacts of sounds on people’s concentration and efficiency in cognitive tasks. Twenty-four participants were asked to complete reading comprehension and logical questions under natural sounds in a café, white noise, and a K-pop song respectively, and their viewing patterns, including the fixation time, completion time were analyzed. It is found that natural sounds in a café and white noise do not affect subjects' concentration, while the K-pop song has a positive impact. In addition, background sounds are found to have more pronounced effects on subjects' performance in reading comprehension tasks than that in logical questions.

Keywords: attention, background sounds, eye tracking, cognitive task performance

1. Introduction

Many people have the habit of listening to various kinds of sounds when handling assignments, and they consider these sounds can help them saty concentrated. Many researchers show increasing interests in the impacts of background sounds on the efficiency and accuracy of cognitive tasks. For example, Chou has examined the impact of various forms of background media on reading and cognitive tasks (Chou, 2010). According to this research, some backgrounds noises may bring emotional stress to the subjects and hinder parts of the brain’s function. Dolegui found that music could improve cognitive function (Dolegui, 2013). Geethanjali concluded that music can create a good atmosphere and raises attention levels (Geethanjali et al., 2016). However, existing researches have shown contradicting results. For example, Furnham’s research concluded that background noises can have negative effects which can hinder people from staying focused, and music can be equally distracting (Furnham & Strbac, 2010). Another study about background sounds indicated there is no direct influence on time responding to certain stimuli and processing information under the exposure to noise (Dudek et al., 1991). Similarly, a study investigated the impact of different noises on memory by using a questionnaire, indicating that white noise does not have a general influence on cognition (Herweg & Bunzeck, 2015).

This study aims at investigating the effects of different types of background sounds on people's attention when dealing with different types of cognitive tasks performance. As some aforementioned studies suggested, the hypothesis is that different types of background sounds would influence people's attention. However, this research has two innovations: unique measurements and a new research paradigm. Firstly, this study is the very first attempt to use the eye-tracking method, while other studies typically use EEG and other measurements. Secondly, this study treats the intensity as a constant and changes types of cognitive processes and types of background sounds. If the relationship between types of background sounds and cognitive performance can be established, administrators of educational institutions and workplaces can launch initiatives to optimize learning and working efficiency.

2. Method

2.1 Participant

32 people (Mage = 27.94 years) were randomly recruited in Shanghai, of which 13 were females, 19 were males. These participants were informed that they would undergo a psychological experiment. The participants were informed about the content and potential risks of the study and consented to participate in the study.

2.2 Design and procedure

The study adopted a between-subject design, with their attention to the texts and questions as the manipulated factor. The participants were assigned randomly to 3 different types of background sounds. 10 participants were recruited for each group while some data were excluded due to calibration issue. Group 1 (N = 6) would be exposed to the natural environment in a café; they listened to the natural sound while reading the texts and answering the questions. Group 2 (N = 10) would listen to white noise via a pair of headphones and complete the same task. Group 3 (N = 8) listened to a K-pop song (Fancy by TWICE) using the same headset. The sounds of white noise and the K-pop song are at a level of 46 dB.

The participants signed the consent form and completed a questionnaire collecting personal information including biological sex and age. The computer was connected to the eye-tracker (7invensun), and there was a screen (13.3 inches) connected to the computer to display texts and questions for participants. The participants were asked to sit in front of the screen, and their gazes were calibrated. They were then required to read texts and answer the corresponding questions verbally, following an easy logic sequencing question. Participants in group 2 and group 3 used the headphones throughout the process, which in total lasted for about 5 minutes. After the experiment, they would be debriefed about the research project.

The area of interest (AOI) included 5 areas in total. Group A contains texts of two comprehension questions, two correct answers of the corresponding questions and the last logic question; group B consists of two correct answers of the two comprehension questions; group C is the logical question. During this experiment, two indexes were measured by the eye-tracker: fixation duration (FD) and completion duration (CD). The time for participants to read through the texts and to find the answers are higher if they lose attention to the questions. The stimuli are two reading comprehension questions and one logical question.

2.3 Data analysis

To test the hypothesis that various types of background sounds have impacts on attention while completing tasks, one-way ANOVA is used, with 3 types of background sounds (natural, white noise and K-pop music) as the controlling factor and attention measured by different elements (FD, CD) as the dependent variables. Eight sets of data were excluded from the analysis due to data quality issues. The final 24 sets contain (average age, male =27.57 years, female =26.90 years).

3. Results

Groups 1 and 3 show a significant difference in the light of FD for the whole task (p = .03). Group 1’ FD is longer than that of group 3 (M1=93.33,M3=54.72). While group 2 shows no significance with the rest two groups. During reading comprehension tasks, participants demonstrated a significant difference in terms of FD between group 1 and 3 (p1,3= .02), while there is no significant difference between group 1 and 2 (p1,2 = .06), and no significant difference between group 2 and group 3 (p2,3 = .45); FD of group 1 is longer than that of group 2 and 3 ; there is no statistical significance for the logical question. For CD, there is a significant difference between groups 1 and 3 (p1,3= .04) for the entire task. Group 3 is smaller than that of group 1 (M3=36.90, M1=71.12). While there is no significance between group 2 and the rest two groups. For CD of comprehension tasks, group 1 and group 2 shows a significant difference (p1,2= .05). Group 1 and group 3 show a significant difference (p1,3= .01). While group 2 and 3 shows no significance. For the logic question, all groups show no significance.

Above all, CD for the whole task of group 3 whose participants were exposed to K-pop music is smaller than that of group 1 (M1 = 71.12, M3= 36.90), at the same time with a significant smaller fixation duration (p1,3= .04). This indicates that with the help of K-pop song, the participants were more focused on their tasks, and their information processing efficiency is higher.

Table 1. The average fixation duration and average completion duration of different group

4. Discussion

This research is one of the very first attempts to leverage eye tracking method to investigate the influence of diverse background sounds on attention during cognitive tasks. Comparing to natural background sound in café and white noise, the given K-pop song has smaller CD and FD which indicates K-pop song has a positive impact on attention when doing cognitive tasks. Some aforementioned researches show contradictory results. Below are some potential reasons. Yang suggested the tune and rhythm of music as play important roles on attention (Yang et al., 2016). Generally K-pop music has a fast tempo. This may create an energetic atmosphere which helps people stay concentrated and motivated. So participants exposed to K-pop music in this study showed higher efficiency. This finding aligns with some previous studies which also concluded music of fast tempo has positive impacts on performance tasks. For example, a study demonstrated that people exposed to fast-paced music have better reading performance than that of slow pace music (Dalton,2007). In this way, it can be suggested that fast tempo music may help motivate people so that achieve better task performance. However there are some other existing researches on background music suggested a contradictory result regarding lyrics. Shih considered music with lyrics has a negative impact on people’s performance (Shih, 2012). Though K-pop song used as a stimulus in this research also has lyrics which is Korean, it cannot be comprehended by the participants who are all Chinese in most cases. This might explain the inconsistency with the previous researches. Besides, this study demonstrates that white noise does not have a significant effect on attention, which is consistent with the previous study on white noise’s function in perception and cognition (Herweg & Bunzeck, 2015). Furthermore, the background sounds do not affect the performance of people doing logic questions, which means they cannot significantly affect assignments related to logical questions. Comparatively, tasks based on texts are more likely to be affected by background sounds. Above all, based on findings in this research, people can choose music with fast tempo like K-pop songs to help reduce distractions and boost efficiency, especially when lyrics can not be comprehended.

However, the study is still limited. Some data was excluded due to low data quality caused by following reasons. Some participants' calibration was not precise especially for Group 1. Some participants move their bodies or were distracted in a moment during the experiment which resulted in unqualified eye tracking data. In future studies, more participants should be recruited to reduce unqualified data. More qualified data could generate a more representative conclusion. Besides, the types of background sounds in this experiment are incomprehensive. Further studies and researches about alike topics can explore more diverse types of music and sounds that might have impacts on people’s attention.


Chou, P. T. M. (2010). Attention Drainage Effect: How Background Music Effects Concentration in Taiwanese College Students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(1), 36-46.

Dalton, B. H., & Behm, D. G. (2007). Effects of noise and music on human and task performance: A systematic review. Occupational ergonomics, 7(3), 143-152.

Dolegui, A. S. (2013). The impact of listening to music on cognitive performance. Inquiries Journal, 5(09).

Dudek, B. O. H. D. A. N., Marszal-Wisniewska, M., Merecz-Kot, D. O. R. O. T. A., Sulkowski, W., & Bortkiewicz, A. L. I. C. J. A. (1991). Effects of noise on cognitive processes of individuals in a laboratory experiment. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 4(3), 269-279.

Furnham, A., & Strbac, L. (2010). Music is as distracting as noise: The differential distraction of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Ergonomics, 45(3), 203–217.

Geethanjali, B., Adalarasu, K., Jagannath, M., & Rajasekaran, R. (2016). Enhancement of task performance aided by music. Current Science, 1794-1801.

Herweg, N. A., & Bunzeck, N. (2015). Differential effects of white noise in cognitive and perceptual tasks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Kellaris, J. J., Cox, A. D., & Cox, D. (1993). The effect of background music on ad processing: A contingency explanation. Journal of Marketing, 57(4), 114-125.

Shih, Y.-N., Huang, R.-H., & Chiang, H.-Y. (2012). Background music: Effects on attention performance. Work, 42(4), 573–578.

Yang, J., McClelland, A., & Furnham, A. (2016). The effect of background music on the cognitive performance of musicians: A pilot study. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1202-1208.

14 views1 comment

1 Comment

Xinru Li
Xinru Li
Oct 04, 2022

Sounds interesting!!😸

Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page