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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Dr. Rob Garcia's picture
Dr. Rob Garcia
Former High School Engineering Teacher now Author and EdD

Dr. Curwin,
Thanks for the great questions, I was fascinated by David's article. I have only written two books but music played an IMMENSE role in them.

Dr. Rob

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

Dear Dr. Rob,

Thank you for your comments and insight. I'm also a fan of jazz, and I do think there is something to be said while working and listening to music without lyrics. I'll have to do some more digging on that front. Indeed, I am catching a lot of different views, but I welcome freindly debate. I wish politicans, on either side of the aisle, could argue as amicably.

Once more, thank you for your kind note. It means a lot.

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

Thank you for your comment. I would be curious to hear what's "half complete wrong" with my perspective.



Lorrie Morales's picture
Lorrie Morales
Intermediate Science Teacher for private school in Puerto Rico

I, personally, cannot listen to music while performing any task that requires concentration. But I do have students that need to listen to music to concentrate better when given a physical task to do, but when they need to read, some prefer not to listen to music.
This can be a very interesting experiment to do with students in the classroom and it can help kids understand until what point it can be beneficial to listen or not music, or what kind of music they can listen when performing different tasks.

KKG Music's picture
KKG Music
Music Teacher/Chorus; Soprano Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus

As with any study there are probably too many variables. As a musician I am completely distracted by almost any & every sound. Were it possible for me to "sit in silence" and focus then I do believe that perhaps short term retention might improve. However, I am sitting here, the vent is clicking because the heat is on, there is a plane flying overhead, I can hear my child typing on her computer down the hall in the music room, etc. A single piece of music playing allows me to focus. Of course, I'm useless at phone numbers. That's why smartphones were invented, yes? *wonders how many musicians were observed* #wearenotallthesame

AquiAmigo's picture

The study cited in this article actually didn't come to the generalized result described here and by the study author. The study only proved that listening to Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Arcade Fire (or similar pop music) would impair one's ability to memorize a series of numbers read by a computer-generated voice. Duly noted. I will never listen to Lady Gaga when trying to memorize numbers read to me by a computer-generated voice.

Tom Sullivan's picture
Tom Sullivan
Father of 3 in Los Angeles, CA

I do like to listen to music, especially if the alternative is background noise that I don't like, but I do agree with some of the specifics in the article.

I have always stayed away from music with lyrics (instrumental jazz & classical) when i want to study/work well.

Likewise I find it's best to listen to music with less "acute changing state" (term in the article), like ambient and minimalist classical (Glass, Reich).

frank's picture

Listening to music while reading helps to engage more areas of my brain and enhance focus. I also make deeper connections within the material more quickly than I would without music. I am concerned that the few studies on the issue have not considered enough intelligence or personality subtypes to effectively answer the question.

Ok? Ok.'s picture

In my opinion, it depends on the student. When I did homework or studied, I would listen to music and it wouldn't bother me at all. Music always made me feel at home and helped me focus and not get distracted easily. Whenever I worked in silence, I quickly distracted myself with anything around me, and before I new it an hour has passed. Some students like the silence while they work, because they state that the music distracts them from their concentration. Unlike my music lovers, who happen to bring their headphones and their phones to class, and listen to music while they are working or studying. I have witnessed other classmates and students, without music, getting distracted easily and they start to talk to each other. The others who are listening to music are focused in their work. In conclusion, it depends on the person to decide if they want to work with music or not.

Brian Streckfus's picture

I totally agree about the lyrics aspect but I still believe the Mozart effect is real in theory. Some classical indian musicians say that the art of healing people through music is a lost art. They even go so far as to say which scales cure which diseases. I also agree with the phone number thing. Music is the art of measuring well and is mathematics so I can see why that is going to be like solving two simultaneous math problems. You're going to be thinking "9" while the music is saying "4" for example and it might just fluster you in the end.

Lyrics are distracting for me and gets me almost too fired up. Lyrics are for work outs for me cuz it gets me pumped.

I think this is a GIANT subject though that a 100 Ph Ds could work on forever. 100 hundred years from now I imagine our understanding of sound waves on the body will be much more harnessed just like sound waves may end up being more powerful than atomic bombs because one could create artificial disasters like tsunamis and Earthquakes and let mother nature do the heavy lifting for you. That's a scary thought but not a new one, The horn of Jericho is in the bible and it was supposedly able to knock down walls with just sound. Earth quakes are odd frequencies (like 13 hertz) and even frequencies are being studied to cure cancer (like 440 hertz). Odd frequencies rattle things apart and even frequencies rattle things back together? I find that to be interesting and maybe that's why Mozart is the spokesperson in a sense because Mozart has such symmetrical numbers and evenly divisible intervals all the time, so Mozart's music is an anti-earthquake. The waves in your brain want to match the frequency waves of the music being played, which is why music can be used to control Alpha, Beta, theta and delta waves but all of this really depends on the genre and student. This process in called entrainment and binaural headphones will enhance this even more because it has to do with putting 440 hertz in one ear in 448 hertz in the other for example so that the brain can be entrained into a certain state. You subtract one from the other and get 8 hertz which leaves to entraining the brain into Alpha waves since Alpha waves are from 8-13 hertz for example. Binaural beats never did much for me though, they seem abrasive to me, though I feel like I did have Lucid dreams after listening to them so I must of had my brain entrained to theta waves since those are when the brain dreams when your sleeping. I still prefer mediation music from ancient cultures and instrumental music instead of binaural beats and vocal music. I'm no expert though, I just roughly know how it works.

I also use ASMR "music" to cure my insomnia and it works like a charm, and I can totally feel my brain waves change states, like night and day.

I think one of the reasons I like to listen to music too is that it feels like multitasking so It feels less painful to work for longer than 8 hours a day.

I've heard of a lot of studies that say playing music leads to higher grades in the long run but I'm not super familiar with them. Playing music almost reminds me of luminosity.com training where it keeps your brain sharp. That's a whole other conservation I suppose since this is just talking about the listening aspect.

I have a B.M. in classical guitar performance btw and I have studied music in college for eight years. I'm not a music therapist however so this is just my opinion and my hypothesis'.

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