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When music is a distraction

Sometimes music helps you study. Other times it’s a major annoyance. What’s going on, and why are all the scientific studies so different?

Yesterday I described some studies that show a slight advantage, in some situations, of listening to music while you study. But what if you can’t study with music on at all? What if you need absolute silence to concentrate?

What kind of studying are you doing?

Depending on what kind of studying you’re doing, music may make the task easier or harder. If you need to comprehend what you’re memorizing, it might help to listen to music about what you’re learning. But if you just want music on in the background, consider what type of music you’re listening to and what kind of work you’re doing.

Music or no music?

In yesterday’s post I mentioned a study that found almost no effect of background music on people who were doing a memory task, and another few studies that found a positive effect of happy music on creative or spatial tasks. So what should you do if you’re not sure? From the way I described it here and in the previous post, it sounds like you should err on the side of music, because it either has no effect or a positive effect. But I didn’t give you the full story. Music can also be a distraction, and have a negative effect on your ability to comprehend what you’re trying to study.

Listening to music uses your working memory

For some people, having music on in the background makes it impossible to study. That was something that already came up in one of the studies from Ulm University I mentioned yesterday. Lehmann and Seufert specifically say in their paper: “Based on the results of this study, we cannot recommend learning with background music.” They point out that in particular people who don’t have a great working memory will find it different to study while having music in the background. That’s because listening to music also uses your short-term (working) memory. As you listen to a song, you briefly remember the lyrics you just heard (even if you forget them again later). If you also need to memorize your homework at the same time, you’re now doing two tasks that both use your working memory, and that can make it extra difficult.

Music as distraction

There have been several studies that show that listening to music is distracting when you’re trying to learn something. It’s distracting for introverts, and for people learning to drive. It also disrupts reading comprehension — especially if the music is fast and loud. So even though I mentioned yesterday that upbeat music can help people perform spatial reasoning tasks, other studies seem to say that the same kind of music makes it more difficult to do reading comprehension tasks. So what if you’re doing math homework, and you need both reading comprehension and spatial reasoning? Music or no music? Why is it so complicated, and why is there no simple answer?

How should you interpret all these studies?

One single study cannot tell you everything you need to know about the effect of music on learning. Yesterday I mentioned how one tiny published article (of less than one page, and with only 36 test subjects) got taken completely out of context and turned into a widespread belief that listening to Mozart somehow “makes you smarter”. That’s just one article out of many articles. If an article is particularly interesting, it may be covered by journalists and mentioned in the media. The “news” angle for them is that there is a new published study. But scientists don’t think of every scientific article as a big news item: Each article is just one piece of the puzzle.

When I wrote these last two blog posts, I did a bit of picking and choosing to find articles that showed exactly what I was talking about. So even though I wrote about multiple studies instead of just one, it still isn’t unbiased. Yesterday I showed how listening to music can help you study, today I showed how it can also be distracting. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

To get a better overview of what the collective research says, look for a specific type of scientific article called a “review” or a “systematic review” or “meta analysis”. These summarize a large number of research articles and give you a better idea of what’s happening. For example, I found this review that summarizes several studies about the effect of listening to music on learning and on health. They mention that there is an overall positive effect of “preferred music” on some forms of learning. And this meta analysis looked specifically at background music. They found that some studies say background music has a positive effect, while others say it’s distracting. But they did point out that those studies all look at slightly different things. And when they took into account all the different factors, their summary was that “background music disturbs the reading process, has some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact on emotional reactions and improves achievements in sports”

So there you have it. Listening to music is sometimes distracting, but helpful other times. I’m sure you’d already worked that out yourself by deciding when you like to listen to music and when you prefer it quiet.