Does music help or hinder revision?

In the run up to the Summer exam season, when even the most laid-back students begin to think that some revision might be a good idea, teachers are likely to be asked if music is a help or a hindrance.

The current crop of GCSE and A Level students are probably too young for their parents to have been devotees of the ‘Mozart Effect’; Those claims made in the 1990s have long been debunked and were a mixture of overgeneralisation from Frances Rauscher’s original research on the effect of a particular Mozart piano sonata on a specific type of spatial learning, popularisation by the media, and marketing of Mozart recordings. The results could not be reliably replicated and the wider claims for an effect on IQ were never made in the original research.

So, listening to Mozart won’t make us smarter, but there is research showing that music can raise task performance. The most likely reason for this is that music raises the arousal level of participants, increasing their performance. An example is a study by Shellenberg et al (2007) who reported improved cognitive and creative task performance in children and adults after listening to music (see the abstract here).

On the other hand, some research has shown that listening to music is counter-productive to learning. Jones et al (2000) found that the variability in the auditory input was the key factor. Alley & Greene (2008) found that vocal music impaired performance (as did listening to speech) but not instrumental music. These effects happen because processing an additional, auditory, channel is a distraction to cognitive processes which require us to use our working memory capacity to hold and process items of information.

Why then does some research point towards a beneficial effect, and other studies indicate that music impairs performance? The answer may lie in these areas:

1) individual differences between participants.

Most studies report summary results: the overall effect among all the participants, but this may obscure differences in individual responses. There is some evidence that personality traits play a role in this, with negative effects on introverted participants but not extroverts (Dobbs, Furnham & McClelland, 2011), possibly because of differences in optimal arousal levels between these two groups.

In a recent study, Researchers looked at how prone students were to boredom (Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019), Advance online publication). They found that more boredom-prone individuals who tended to seek distraction (and so perhaps are most likely to play music while working) were the most distracted by background music. This is possibly because they tended to focus more on the music than the set tasks, whereas for less boredom-prone individuals the music provided just enough stimulation to prevent them becoming bored with the tasks.

2) Differences between the type of tasks studied. Crucially are they like revising for an exam?

Often research features simple, easily replicable tasks. Exam revision in contrast is complicated, involving not only recall of information, but also the formation of complex associations, the understanding of abstract models and application of all this to novel questions. Research studies such as that by Alley & Greene (2008) indicate that the more complex the task, and the greater the requirement for abstract reasoning, the greater the reduction in performance caused by music. It may be that the harder the learning gets, the more we should avoid distractions such as music. In a study specifically looking at revision, Perham & Currie (2014) found that music with lyrics impaired learning (irrespective of whether the students liked the songs or not), but there was no significant difference between performance when listening to instrumental music or in quiet conditions.

3) What is the type of music?

Many of the research studies mentioned featured instrumental music. That probably isn’t the first choice for most students but it may be the option that doesn’t interfere with cognitive processes. Perham and Currie (2014) reported that instrumental music did not impair revision significantly and Hallam, Price and Katsarou (2002) found that 10-12 year-old pupils actually performed better at a memory task when listening to a pleasant melodic piece than no music and much worse when listening to to an unpleasant aggressive piece.

4) What is the alternative to music?

Typically in a research study the control will be silence, but what will conditions be like where a student is revising? Hopefully they will have a quiet space to work in but this is not always the case. Schlittmeier et al (2012) collected data on the impact of 40 different sounds on working memory task performance. These included background speech, traffic noise, music and duck quacks. All these impaired performance, the greatest interference being produced by background speech. For those who don’t have a quiet study space and need away of blocking out such distracting sounds, listening to music over headphones could be beneficial.

How to decide?

Overall, most of the research indicates that while pleasant instrumental music doesn’t impair cognitive performance for most people, it won’t enhance it either. So the safer option would be not to play music when revising. In some circumstances, however it could be helpful. Answering these questions will help students decide:

1) Is there a lot of background noise where I have to revise?

2) Do I prefer to work in a lively environment with a group, as opposed to working quietly on my own or with a good friend?

3) Do I find it easy to concentrate on a single task, such as revising one topic?

4) Is the music I want to listen to instrumental, rather than songs with lyrics?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then you can probably listen to music quietly with no harmful effects on your work (and if you need to cut out distracting ambient noise it will be helpful). Otherwise, it’s probably best to save the music for the times between revision sessions.

References

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.

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.

Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019). More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

Hallam, S., Price, J., & Katsarou, G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educational Studies, 28, 111-122.

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.

Perham, N., & Currie, H. (2014). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(2), 279-284.

Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

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.

Schlittmeier, S.J., Weißgerber, T., Kerber, S., Fastl, H. & Hellbruck, J. (2012). Algorithmic modeling of the irrelevant sound effect (ISE) by the hearing sensation fluctuation strength. Atten Percept Psychophys 74: 194. 

Image: Pixabay

“I don’t know”: being certain about uncertainty.

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’

Brian Friel, Translations.

I recently read an paper on about the persistence of ‘brain myths’, even among those trained in neurology, by Adrian Furnham. This included several myths about child development and learning. It’s well worth being aware of current research on this field, including those widely-held assumptions which are not supported by evidence. The myths and misconceptions explored in the study were derived from the books Great Myths of the Brain by Christian Jarrett and Great Myths of Brain Development by Stephen Hupp & Jeremy Jewell. Some of the more prevalent included:

  • Adults can usually tell if a child is lying
  • Girls are more likely to have clinical depression than boys
  • Dyslexia’s defining feature is letter reversal
  • Right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people
  • The brain is essentially a computer
  • We only use 10% of our brains

The proportion of participants believing these misconceptions to be true was independent of age, gender and education, including education in psychology. This tendency is therefore something that educators clearly need to be aware of, irrespective of experience or training. I know that I have a tendency to think that I can tell when someone is telling porkies, even when I’ve read the research contradicts this belief.

Are we happier to be wrong than to be uncertain?

One other thing that struck me about the study was the comment by the authors that participants were clearly reluctant to respond ‘don’t know’ in answer to questions, preferring instead to chose a response from the other available options (Definitely True, Probably True, Probably False, Definitely False). The participants in the study may have not wanted to appear ignorant of the topic in question, even if the alternative is to risk being wrong, or they may have been trying to ‘help’ the researchers to collect positive results by opting for a definite answer.

I wonder if we have a tendency to do that outside of the confines of psychology experiments? How often on Edutwitter do we see someone tweet “Interesting question. You know, I’m really not sure”? Most contributions, it seems to me, are firm statements of position in a debate and declarations of certainty.

Confidence in Uncertainty

I’d like to suggest that we we should be more confident about being uncertain. There Are three main reasons for this:

1. I think being comfortable with uncertainty is entirely consistent with reflective pedagogy. If we were certain of everything, then we wouldn’t ever need to ask questions, but we grow as teachers by asking ourselves, ‘How can I improve that?’, ‘Next time I teach that, how can I make it better?’, or ‘Several pupils dropped marks on that question, how can I address that?’. In striving to improve in this way, we acknowledge that accepting that we don’t know it all helps us to become better teachers.

2. We will become better models for our students. This is also something we encourage in our students: to question, try things out and experiment. If we expect these learning behaviours from them, it makes sense for us to model them in our own professional learning. When I first trained as a teacher, I used to worry that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer. I later came to realise that I didn’t always have to be the ‘expert’, and later still that when they did, this was a fantastic opportunity to model learning. I should say that to foster this type of ‘don’t know’, as a spur to further investigation, we have to create an safe atmosphere of trust where students won’t feel they have to give the ‘don’t knows’ that really means ‘I’m afraid of looking silly / getting it wrong’.

3. We will become better informed and so make better decisions. A danger of being reluctant to say we don’t know is that we are more likely to make mistakes, as as the participants frequently did in the study mentioned above. Being able to say we don’t know when we are unsure, makes us less susceptible to social influence and prompts us to gather more information. In terms of debate, a willingness to be open to ideas, including minority views, enables us to make better decisions, whether or not we come to accept those views.

So, if you see me expressing uncertainty, on Twitter or elsewhere, please bear with me: I just think the path to knowing is sometimes through admitting that I am unsure.

Image: Max Pixel http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Matter-Note-Duplicate-Request-Question-Mark-2110767

Other posts on psychology and teaching: https://casebyscasebook.wordpress.com/category/psychology/