Listening to Music while Studying: A Good or a Bad Idea?
By: Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
I rush into the library to drop off some books. When I turn around I see students sitting at tables going over their notes and reading their textbooks; studying. It’s that time of the year again: Exam season is underway. I notice that many of them are wearing headphones and I start to wonder: What are they listening to? Their favourite songs, relaxing lounge tunes, or white noise that cancels out disturbing noise from the outside? Does it make a difference at all what they are listening to while studying?
Before reviewing research that has looked into this question, let me first bust a myth about music and human cognitive skills. You have probably heard about the Mozart Effect. If you ask people in the general public about this effect, they will probably say something along the lines: Oh yes, listening to music by Mozart makes you smarter. However, this statement is not only completely false, but is also a misinterpretation of the Mozart Effect. The Mozart Effect is a brief enhancement of spatial-temporal abilities in college students after listening to a Mozart piano sonata. The finding was reported by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (1) in an experiment where they had students listen to Mozart’s piano sonata, to a relaxation music, or to nothing (silence condition) before performing a spatial reasoning task (a subtest from the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale). The researchers found that participants’ performance on the spatial reasoning task improved after they had listened to the Mozart sonata compared to the other conditions. However, there are a couple of points that are important to know:
- the effect is extremely short-lived with the positive enhancement in spatial reasoning only lasting for 10-15 minutes,
- the improvement is restricted to a quite abstract mental rotation task that is only a small part of the equation when assessing intelligence, and
- other studies were not able to replicate this finding (2).
Taken together, the Mozart Effect has no relevance for educational practice and, unfortunately, listening to Mozart music will not make you smarter.
Now that this is out of the way, let’s turn to studies that have investigated the effects of background music on learning. One idea why listening to background music while studying or performing a task may be potentially beneficial has been put forward by Schellenberg and colleagues (3) in their arousal-emotion/mood-activation hypothesis. It assumes that music that puts you in a positive mood has a positive effect on your performance. Another idea is the changing state hypothesis, which states that rapidly changing music will distract learning and lead to poor performance (4).
What evidence is there for either of the explanations and can we find an answer to the question whether listening to music while learning is a good or bad thing? In one study, for example, participants studied vocabulary pairs either under a silence condition or music condition with classical music playing in the background (5). Participants underwent three learning sessions and were tested one week later. The results show that participants tend to perform better on the final test when they had listened to music while studying vocabulary. However, the author of that study acknowledges that not all participants seemed to have benefitted to the same extent from listening to background music during studying. Another study looked into this more closely and investigated the role of personality traits for the effects of background music on different cognitive tasks (6). The results of this study are quite mixed. For instance, whether performance was hindered or helped by background music depended on the type of task. For instance, verbal reasoning was better under the music condition compared to the silence condition, but abstract perceptual reasoning was hurt by simultaneously listening to music. After controlling for general IQ, background music showed a negative effect on introverted people for abstract reasoning, but no effect on extraverted people. For verbal reasoning, however, introverts and extraverts were not affected differently by listening to music while performing the task. One explanation for this finding is that the abstract reasoning task is more complex than the verbal reasoning task. Thus, task complexity seems to play a moderating role when deciding whether to listen to music while studying. If the task at hand is quite complex and you are more on the introverted spectrum you may be better off studying without music.
Hallam, Price, and Katsarou (7) investigated the effects of background music on math learning and verbal memorisation in young children in primary school. For math learning, they had pupils solve arithmetic problems under music (mood-calming) or silence conditions. Although pupils performed equally well under both conditions in regard to accuracy, they solved the math problems quicker in the music condition. The verbal memorisation task required them to read sentences and remember a missing word in a sentence for later. Studying occurred under one of three conditions: silence, unpleasant/ aggressive music, or pleasant/calm music. Again, it was found that performance was best when pupils had studied with pleasant music playing in the background. Performance was worst in the unpleasant, aggressive music condition. Thus, it seems to be the case that music that puts you in a good mood and that is not interrupting because of rapid changes in tempi can be beneficial while studying. The studies presented so far did not test these two explanations against each other, but a study by Jäncke and Sandmann (8) did. Surprisingly, they did not find any substantial or consistent influence of background music on verbal learning. Thus, whether participants studied with or without pleasant/unpleasant/slow changing /fast changing instrumental music in the background did not matter.
So, should you listen to music while you are studying? As it is often the case when looking at evidence from research, the answer seems to boil down to: It depends! Certainly, features of the task seem to play a crucial role and studying complex material that requires you to engage all your focus on what you are trying to understand may be hindered by any kind of background music. Tasks that require you to keep track of several pieces of information at one time while processing them, too (i.e., tasks heavy on working memory demands), may be particularly affected by any kind of background music or noise (9) and are best done in complete silence. Your personality seems also to play a role on whether you will benefit at all from listening to your favourite tunes while studying. And only to complicate things even further, we have seen that an interaction of both factors, task complexity and personality, may be in place. Nevertheless, positive effects of background music have been found and it may certainly be worth trying it out.
I, personally, don’t do anything without listening to music. So, while writing this blog post, I have been listening to soothing background music. However, in the past, I have caught myself turning the music down when trying to grasp a complex bit of information when reading a scientific article. So, there you go: It depends!
(1) Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
(2) McKelvie, P., & Law, J. (2002). Listening to Mozart does not improve children's spatial ability: Final curtains for the Mozart effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20, 241-258.
(3) Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35, 5-19.
(4) Jones, D. M., Alford, D., Macken, W. J., Banbury, S. P., & Tremblay, S. (2000). Interference from degraded auditory stimuli: linear effects of changing-state in the irrelevant sequence. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 108, 1082-1088.
(5) de Groot, A. M. B. (2006). Effects of stimulus characteristics and background music on foreign language vocabulary learning and forgetting. Language Learning, 56, 463-506.
(6) Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 307-313.
(7) Hallam, S., Price, J., & Katsarou, G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educational Studies, 28, 111-122.
(8) Jäncke, L., & Sandmann, P. (2010). Music listening while you learn: No influence of background music on verbal learning. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 6, 1-14.
(9) Alley, T. R., & Greene, M. E. (2008). The relative and perceived impact of irrelevant speech, vocal music and non-vocal music on working memory. Current Psychology, 27, 277-289.