Why You Shouldn't Listen to Music While Studying

October 19th, 2014 25 Comments Other

listen to music while studying

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.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

25 Responses

  1. Hank says:

    I don´t believe this is true. Many studies have shown that music helps with studying, not the other way around. However, it depends on the type of music. If you use music with words this can distract you for example when you are looking to learn a language. But classical music or other instrumental things could also be a benefit!

    • Anthony says:

      This is false.

    • cupcake123 says:

      If you think that this website is wrong, why would you go on it. This website is literally called why you shouldn’t listen to music while studying. If you think that listening to music while studying is good, don’t go on a website that says otherwise. This is someones opinion, it doesn’t matter!

    • Sele says:

      I agree however, even classical music can encourage your mind to think about unrelated topics.

    • Luna says:

      I’m here for some speech thing. ;-; I’m just taking some info to back myself up. 😀 From all the information I’ve collected, this is false. There have been many experiments done. Please put information that’s actually correct. Sorry!!!! ?

    • “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.”

  2. Danielle says:

    I guess it would depend on the music and individual. I won’t think that listening to chill out sounds would be a distraction, but then again, it may be.

  3. Chen Hua says:

    It seems to me that classic music only makes me feel relaxed while studying. I believe that people have misunderstood that music can help memorising. It is more likely that music can hinder your cognitive abilities to remember things quickly. Actually, music helps you relax,rather than helps you remember.

    On the other hand, it also depends on what types of the studying you are doing, if you are preparing for exam, you’d better concentrate on your content of the exam in a quiet environment, you may listen to the music when you have a break. Therefore, you will be able to last longer time for your study because we all know that the process of studying is time time and energy consuming. Music adds some relaxation, some sweetness into the ‘bitter’ studying.

  4. If you listen to music whilst engaging in a task = Multitasking. Multitasking= Slower mental process. Slower mental process = less work done. Less work done= Lower grade. Lower grade= No education. No education= No life and so on. So moral of it is do not listen to distracting or any music if you cannot multitask or concentrate on work as well.

  5. brenda gonzalez says:

    I guess we all have our personalities of the type of music we like, but honestly it all depends if we are distracted or comfortable with it. I mean some people wouldn’t listen to classical music if they had a choice. Were all different so we all care for different types of music.

  6. kate105 says:

    I’m doing a paper for school and this really helped so thank you even though I completely disagree

  7. Onnionsssssssssss says:

    I honestly disagree. I think songs like rap songs and catchy songs like Shake it Off shouldn’t be study music. You might end up singing the song and not studying. I actually think that other music like piano music or something soothing will be a good choice for studying. If some song or music is distracting the person, definitely don’t resume the music. Some songs should be used as study music others should not.

    • Anthony says:

      You will more than likely always perform better on post-study assessment if you studied without noise than if you studied with noise of any kind.

  8. Daniel Colores Colores says:

    wow that is alot of info… good job!!!!!!!!!

  9. Libirty says:

    I am currently doing a study project on the benefits that music has on your body and why it should be allowed in the classroom and I have found that listening to music while you work can improve your concentration, learning ability, and most importantly, help you to memorize what your learning. you can still listen to your favourite songs as long as you keep the volume low enough that it is a quiet background noise.

    • Hermione Caulfield (Yes, my parents really named me that, I was given this name before Harry Potter came into existence) says:

      The point is, while music can break the monotony, you have to remember one thing. Yes, you may perform better with music but then you’ll start to perform well only with music as time passes. Just like how certain things associated with a memory can trigger you to remember it, you can only recall the information you studied when you listen to the music. Which is not possible in the exam hall. So what I suggest is that you listen to music when you are doing something or boring or something that you aren’t learning anything, like let us say project work. While you learning many skills, you aren’t learning anything new(apart from the research of course). You are merely preparing the report and making models and all that stuff. Therefore, you won’t applying anything from here, so “the lack of remembering without music” is inapplicable here. But let’s say you’re studying for an exam, then don’t. Unless of course, music is available in the exam room. Then, by all means go ahead.

  10. Anthony says:

    Sounds like you already know the answer to your question; and trying to prove something to be (when it may not be true). This is not how science is done. – Also if you have a classroom of 10-30 people; is it not possible that music of any kind may be disruptive to any particular student? And that the person may not even be aware that the music is disruptive (just like in the study mentioned in the article above). – There is nothing wrong with listhening to music while studying, it cane make stuyding more enjoyable. However, it has been demosntrated that you will perform more poorly and take longer to study than if you had not been listhening to music.

  11. Michael Hill says:

    I think some people believe whichever study they heard first. If they heard music is good then they’ll believe that. If they heard it is bad then they’ll believe that. However, contradictory to what I just stated, I believe it is bad, even though at first I heard that it was good, because I can’t process the information clearly because I can’t concentrate.

  12. kaylah says:

    that is exactly how i feel

  13. jenny alen says:

    This was an informative post

  14. laura says:

    even silence can distract me, so i have to listen to music. silence is so tense and gives me a head ache when music doesnt idk why

  15. Darry says:

    I like to listen to music while studying, but offline. As I am on Spotify, I need to use a tool DRmare Spotify Converter to help me get Spotify offline and play on my device.

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