Some of us know we work better with a little Jack Johnson egging us on. But new research out of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff says listening to music can damage your performance on certain study tasks.
Examining the ability to recall information in the presence of different sounds, researchers instructed 25 participants between ages 18 and 30 try to memorize, and later recall, a list of letters in order. Participants were tested under various listening conditions: quiet, music that they’d said they liked, music that they’d said they didn’t like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers.
The study found that participants performed worst while listening to music, regardless of whether they liked that music, and to the speech of random numbers. They did the best in the quiet and while listening to the repeated “three.”
So what’s going on here, exactly? The researchers explain it this way: Music may impair cognitive abilities when you’re trying to memorize things in order, because you may get thrown off by the changing words and notes in your chosen song. That’s why they have dubbed this phenomenon the ‘irrelevant sound effect’ (ISE).
It’s true that previous studies have found benefits to listening to music before performing a task. Listening to background music prior to task performance increases cognitive processes, such as attention and memory, through the mechanism of increasing arousal and positive mood.
A 2007 study conducted by Stanford researchers illustrates this effect. Using brain images of people listening to short symphonies by an obscure 18th-century composer, the researchers showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions, and updating the event in memory. Most significantly, peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements– when seemingly nothing was happening.
The Cardiff study presents a more realistic scenario: hearing music at the same time as doing the expected task. And the results show it’s not a good idea.
So what about the Mozart Effect, a popular theory in the 90s? Well, according to one study, listening to Mozart increased spatial abilities, but subsequent research failed to find the same effect. Other studies have found a “Schubert Effect” for people who like the music of Franz Schubert and a “Stephen King” effect for people who liked a narrated story by that author. But there’s a simple explanation behind all of this: When you hear something you like, it heightens your arousal and mood, which improves performance. Unless, of course, you’re memorizing ordered lists.
The Cardiff researchers note that their new study does not necessarily contradict those previous findings, but it does suggests some limitations on the benefits of music in memorizing lists of things in order. It may still be the case that listening to music before performing a task like that aids cognitive abilities. But this new research suggests that it might be better to study for an exam in quiet, or let Jack egg you on before you crack open your textbook.
The study, led by Nick Perham and Joanne Vizard, first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Applied Clinical Psychology.