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The impact of music on learning

The impact of music on learning

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Does listening to music help students learn more effectively and efficiently? Music can provoke deep emotions, influence one’s mood and affect their cognitive performance. Research shows that the majority of students listen to music whilst working, believing it helps them manage the stress and anxiety they experience when studying.

There is mixed evidence regarding how music affects task performance – over years of research, it has been shown to either facilitate, hinder or have no effect at all (depending on which study you read). Given that studies suggest that the average person will spend over 32 hours a week listening to music, it is important to be aware of the impact it may have on performance.

How does music affect task performance?

The effects of music on task performance depend on the type of music, the task, and the student completing the task. Let’s have a look at each of these components:

The type of music

The type of music that students listen to can play a key role in how it affects their performance. Research found that students performed better on arithmetic and memory tests when they listened to calming and relaxing music. They were then tested whilst listening to aggressive and unpleasant music, which negatively impacted their performance.

When students were asked to complete a reading comprehension task, it was found that they performed worse when listening to music that they didn’t like. Interestingly, even when listening to music that they did like, there was little impact on their performance of the task. In this case, this could possibly be because reading is a very cognitively demanding task. In order to complete the task well, one must fully understand the information that they are reading, therefore any distraction can have a negative impact.

The type of task

Research suggests that listening to music whilst working on a complex task generally impairs performance (i.e. during revision or when learning new information). Complex tasks tend to require more of the student’s attention for them to perform well. Listening to music may hinder their performance as they may suffer attentional conflict with the task.

On the other hand, listening to complex (more than three instruments) or loud music whilst completing a simple task has been shown to facilitate performance. When completing a simple task, students are often underutilising their attentional resources. This is why a distraction such as loud and complex music can strongly facilitate performance, as it can occupy more leftover attentional resources and reduce the likelihood of mind-wandering.

The type of student

In the classroom, there are often many different personalities. One way that we can categorise students is whether they identify as introverts or extroverts:

  • Extroverts tend to be very outgoing and feel quite comfortable being a part of large groups.
  • Introverts are generally more reserved and prefer being alone.

Both groups differ on cognitive levels under a variety of conditions – and, interestingly, whether students identify as introverts or extroverts can influence how music affects their performance. Music is on a continuum from highly stimulating and invigorating to soothing and calming. Evidence shows that extroverted students’ test scores improved in the presence of complex music, whereas the introverted students suffered impaired performance. This could be because in the presence of complex and loud music, introverts are subjected to over-arousal and cannot focus enough attention on the task at hand.

Extroverts actively seek stimulation and so may feel more comfortable in an environment where there is loud music. The over-arousal may lead them to exert more focus on the task and get better results. The preference for external stimulation moderates the effects of listening to music whilst completing a task.

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How can teachers use music?

Allowing your students to listen to music whilst revising or when in the classroom can be beneficial but can be a risk, and as such clear guidance is needed. It is important that both students and teachers are aware of the negative impacts that may arise when trying to complete a task whilst listening to loud complex music.

Of course, there are also some situations in which listening to any type of music is inappropriate. For example, if there is a classroom discussion or the teacher is giving a lecture, having earphones in and not focusing their attention can be detrimental to students learning.

Using music to students’ advantage can be tricky, especially given the individual differences between students. However, identifying what works best in their classroom can aid teachers in increasing involvement and improving overall student mood. Research shows that 75% of students felt more comfortable if there was music playing when they entered the classroom. Introducing small changes like this is likely to have positive effects on students and could help enhance their learning experience.

Final thoughts

Music can often influence task performance and is dependent on:

  • Whether the student is an introvert or an extrovert
  • The complexity of the task
  • The type of music being played

In most situations where students listen to simple and calming music, they do better on their tasks, indicating that the impact of music on learning can be positive if executed correctly. However, music that has lyrics has been found to significantly decrease performance and learning for many students. If in doubt, it is probably worth remembering that ‘silence is golden’.