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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I notice several students listening to music while busy at work. I have no good reason to ask that they remove their headphones and turn off their devices. As I walk around the room, I admire the elegant, concise prose each produces.

I ask one student why music helps her concentrate. "It soothes me and makes me less stressed," she says. "Plus, Ed Sheeran is just awesome."

As a college student, I spent countless hours studying in a dark corner of the Brandeis University Library. Often, I would lose track of time and wonder about seeing the sun again. Once, my mother called to ask why I hadn't yet returned home for Thanksgiving. I had forgotten about the holiday, focused on getting a jump-start on a major history paper while listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" on repeat.

Placing aside the issue of my self-induced exile, for me as well, music offered not only comfort but also increased focus -- or so I thought, at least until coming across the work of Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.

Impaired Performance

Perham's 2010 study, "Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?", shows how music can interfere with short-term memory performance.

I recently spoke with Perham, who told me about the "irrelevant sound effect." This involves a subject conducting a certain task, in this case recalling a series of numbers, while listening to different kinds of background music. If sound exhibits acoustical variations, or what Perham calls an "acute changing-state," performance is impaired. Steady-state sounds with little acoustical variation don't impair performance nearly as much.

I'm also interested by another of Perham's conclusions. "We found that listening to liked or disliked music was exactly the same, and both were worse than the quiet control condition," he says. "Both impaired performance on serial-recall tasks."

Still, I'm curious how prevalent serial-recall is in everyday life, and if one could get by without developing this skill. Unlikely, Perham says, as one would have tremendous difficulty recalling phone numbers, doing mental arithmetic, and even learning languages.

"Requiring the learning of ordered information has also been found to underpin language learning. If you consider language, learning syntax of language, learning the rules that govern how we put a sentence together, all of these require order information . . . " Perham says.

Perham asked his subjects how they think they performed when exposed to different tastes in music. Each reported performing much worse when listening to disliked music, although the study's results showed no difference.

I presented Perham's findings to my students, many of whom still refused to accept that listening to music while studying impairs performance. I even gave one of these otherwise bright and thoughtful individuals early access to my podcast interview with Perham.

"I enjoy listening to music while doing math," she says. "It really helps me think, and I won't stop listening even with the results of this study."

Silence Is Golden

My student is mistaken, but Perham explains that she should listen to music before getting to work, to engage what's known as the "arousal and mood effect." In fact, as long as she does something enjoyable before hitting the books -- whether it's listening to music or doing anything else -- past studies have shown that this can produce the same positive effect on performance.

I ask Perham then about the so-called "Mozart effect," which, in one early experiment, gave individuals who had recently listened to the famous classical composer enhanced spatial-rotation skills. When they stopped listening and were asked to cut and fold paper, they performed better than when listening to something else.

"Subsequent studies suggested that this wasn't correct," Perham says.

Instead, improved performance had more to do with the preference of sound one listened to before engaging in such work.

"They found it if you like listening to Stephen King's stories," Perham says. "It wasn't anything to do with classical music or Mozart, it was to do on whether you liked [listening to] something or not."

In one of his more recent studies, Perham says, he found that reading while listening to music, especially music with lyrics, impairs comprehension. In this case, it's spoken lyrics, not acoustical variation that impairs productivity.

"You've got semantic information that you're trying to use when you're reading a book, and you've got semantic information from the lyrics," Perham says. "If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn't matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension."

In conducting my own little experiment, I decided to write this article in complete silence. These days, I write while listening to Dave Matthews, John Mayer and other "chill" music. I'm not sure if or how this fits exactly into Perham's findings, but I finished writing in about half the time it normally takes me for something of this length.

At the very least, here's to hoping that my experiment will entice my students to also give it a try.

Editor's note: A PDF transcript of David Cutler's interview with Dr. Nick Perham is available on Spin Education, where this post originally appeared.

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Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jan McCoy's picture
Jan McCoy
Education Researcher, Oregon Department of Education

I listen to avoid listening.

I have worked for years in settings where there is significant background noise from colleagues (sometimes known as a cube farm.

I find that listening to very familiar music, songs I've known for years, drowns out the distraction of one-sided telephone conversations and discussions of movies I might like to see going on nearby.

It would be interesting to have a comparison of a true control condition, droning conversation, telephones ringing, and the occasional startling noise, to listening to various types of music. I would hypothesize that music is better.

johann savalle's picture
johann savalle
CEO Creatroopers, Founder of ENGL, Solutions Designer

Designer here.... I think it really depends what type of work you need to do. Listening to music can be a strong creative simulator. However, when it come to analytic thinking or assimilating a lot of new information, music can definitely be counter productive.
Students are usually required to be doing most of the time the latter and therefore "work" definition here is indeed not supported by music.
However, creative thinking which might be required sometime at school (not too often however, indeed), can really be boosted when choosing the right musical environment. Technical task as well can be less painful with the right music around.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger

With ADHD tendencies, a love of great lyrics, and perfect pitch, there is no way I can have music I enjoy playing as I work. I just get too absorbed in it all. Quiet is bliss.

My youngest son, however, who is both ADD and dyslexic, swears he studies and focuses better with music going on. And I believe him.

My better half, Mr. genius sound engineer, plays music so low while he is working it would drive me bananas. But that's his comfort level.

I can't believe kids can have lyrics playing while writing papers. But they are not me. We keep coming up with theories, but in the end, doesn't it all come right back down to different strokes for different folks?

PS. I was raised in a home full of classical music and musicians. The classics were played constantly. All that music does for me is make me nervous. And for the record? I am NOT good at math.

Will Pemble's picture

I'm going to share this with my kids. Having an I-don't-know-how-severe case of ADD, my personal experience has been that Vivaldi helps me focus for longer periods of time on tasks that require me to sit still and do things like write (create), or do admin tasks (taxes, emails). Anything with lyrics throws me off.

I am going to try listening first, then working.

Tony Borash's picture
Tony Borash
Lead Coach / K-12 Science Content Facilitator
Blogger

Appreciate sharing this variety of information. Personally, I find myself about to focus much more clearly on longer tasks (including studying) when listening to "post-rock" - wordless ambient music often with songs of upwards of 20 minutes in length. I find that these keep me from hearing what is going on around me, while also keeping me from realizing how long I have been engaged in a task (as can be the case in listening to an album, for example). I'm sure I'd much rather prefer "silence", though silence is generally impossible for me to find. "Post-rock" is the closest thing I have found to silence the outside world, after which which I can focus.

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston
Blogger

Thank you to everyone for providing such great feedback! I'm certainly no expert on this matter, and I really appreciate hearing different perspectives. For those of you who teach, I would be very curious to hear how your students respond.

I want to wish everyone a happy, healthy and safe holiday season! If you wish to contact me directly, I can be reached at: davidericcutler@gmail.com

Best,

David Cutler

Pilar Quezzaire's picture
Pilar Quezzaire
Curriculum Manager of Online Learning at International Baccalaureate

I am a little troubled at this article, not because of the evidence of music as a distraction, but the fact that certain tasks, most related to short-term memory processing, are the criteria for determining whether to listen to music. While one should not listen to music when trying to memorize a phone number, perhaps that is only one instance where music is inappropriate for "learning?" For long-term concentration, this may not be the case -- Perham's work in no way addresses long-term processing, nor anything outside of rote learning, if I am reading your article properly.

I also want to know if other scientists have successfully completed an experiment that corroborates Perham's results. This sounds like a conclusion based on one study, and Perham criticizes "the Mozart effect" based on a lack of reliability. I think the same can be said of his conclusions about music and information processing.

I am writing this response while listening to R&B in my headphones, by the way, and I feel in no way impaired. In fact, I find it comforting to consider this question creatively while listening to my favorite music. I do not have ADHD, and I do not feel terribly distracted.

Then again, I am not being asked to memorize anyone's phone number.

C.S. Stone's picture
C.S. Stone
8th grade Science, Hammond, Indiana

I allow my students to listen to their music in the classroom. I have a couple of boys who are extremely antsy and will talk and walk and wiggle 50 minutes straight if I don't stay on top of them. When they have their headphones on, we all forget they're in the room. It focuses them, they are able to get work completed and are not a distraction in the classroom. I personally MUST have some sort of "noise" in the background while I work (I'm working on my masters' in ed tech)... a quiet room drives me nuts. Its a learning style issue.. . some people just need the music as a focal point for them.

Sue's picture

This is fascinating to me. I find that I need silence when I am reading dense material or writing material that requires high-level analysis. However, when I am working on less demanding material, I like classical music in the background. Songs with lyrics tempt me to sing along and get distracted.

iamwave's picture
iamwave
let's revolve

Your point of view is half right, but half complete wrong.

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