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.
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.