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The one about listening to music while studying: Studies every teacher needs to know

The one about listening to music while studying: Studies every teacher needs to know

3 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • The science of learning

Why this study?

Many students listen to music while studying and doing their homework. Many of them will swear that listening to their favourite songs helps them study.

But does it actually increase or hinder learning? And interestingly, does it matter what type of music you listen to whilst revising?

To answer this question, researchers Nick Perham and Harriet Cure from the Applied Psychology department of Cardiff Metropolitan University recently ran a study. They assigned students of a range of ages to one of four groups:

  • The first revised in silence;
  • The second revised whilst listening to music with lyrics they liked (which included songs from One Direction and Katy Perry);
  • The third group revised to music with lyrics they did not like (which comprised of very heavy thrash metal bands);
  • The fourth group revised listening to music that did not have lyrics.

The participants then took a test on the passages they had been revising, rating how distracting their environment had been, as well as writing down their predictions for how well they thought they had done.

The one about listening to music while studying: Studies every teacher needs to know

The main findings

#1 Students who revised in quiet environments performed over 60% better in an exam than their peers who revised listening to music that had lyrics.

#2 Students who listened to music while studying without lyrics did better than those who had listened to music while studying with lyrics.

#3 It made no difference if students revised listening to songs they liked or didn’t like. Both led to a reduction in their subsequent test performance.

#4 Students who revised in silence rated their environment as less distracting, and accurately predicted that this would lead to better performances in subsequent tests.

Related research

There are some benefits to listening to music whilst performing certain tasks. It can be quite motivating and it can improve your mood (i.e. listening to your favourite song tends to make people smile). This is why many people listen to music in the gym. However, despite improving your arousal levels, it does not help people learn new or complex material.

The misbelief that it does stems from a series of studies that have been dubbed ‘The Mozart Effect’. Participants in these studies appeared to be getting smarter and performing better in tests. However, further research has since revealed that this is not the case.

Whilst listening to music before a task can make someone feel better, listening to it whilst trying to learn something new tends not to help. This is because music, especially with lyrics, can take up processing space. This conflicts with the material you are trying to learn, effectively creating a bottleneck in our memory, as there is less space to process what you are revising.

The authors of the study are in no doubt when they comment that “despite liking certain lyrical music, it is as detrimental to reading comprehension as listening to disliked music. Music without lyrics was shown to be less detrimental but, as expected, performing reading comprehension was best in quiet conditions”.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

Classroom implications listening to music while studying

It is important that students are made aware of the pitfalls of listening to music while studying. What is interesting to note is that this study found that students rated the quiet environment as less distracting and better for them, yet many students will continue to listen to music during their homework.

Why would this be the case? It could be for a number of reasons, that include doing so out of habit; they confuse what improves their mood with what leads to good revision, it alleviates boredom, and because everyone else is doing it.

Therefore, students need to know not just what they need to revise, but how they should revise as well. There may well be a time and place to listen to music while studying, but not when they are learning new and complex material. As the old saying goes, ‘silence is golden’.

This study is from our book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.

Reference: Perham and Currie, 2014, Applied Cognitive Psychology