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July 27th, 2010
05:03 PM ET

Music may harm your studying, study says

If you're studying for a test, putting on background music that you like may seem like a good idea. But if you're trying to memorize a list in order - facts, numbers, elements of the periodic table - the music may actually be working against you, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, United Kingdom, looked at the ability to recall information in the presence of different sounds. They instructed 25 participants between ages 18 and 30 try to memorize, and later recall, a list of letters in order. The study authors are Nick Perham and Joanne Vizard, and the study will appear in the September 2010 issue of Applied Clinical Psychology.

Participants were tested under various listening conditions: quiet, music that they'd said they liked, music that they'd said they didn't like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers.

The study found that participants performed worst while listening to music, regardless of whether they liked that music, and to the speech of random numbers. They did the best in the quiet and while listening to the repeated "three."

Music may impair cognitive abilities in these scenarios because if you're trying to memorize things in order, you may get thrown off by the changing words and notes in your chosen song, the authors speculate.

Although other studies have found benefits to listening to music before performing a task, the authors note that this new research presents a more realistic scenario: hearing music at the same time as doing the expected task.

In the 1990s, listening to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was thought to increase spatial abilities, but subsequent research failed to find the same effect. But other studies have found a "Schubert effect" for people who like the music of Franz Schubert, and a "Stephen King" effect for people who liked a narrated story by that author. The explanation for all of this could be that when you hear something you like, it heightens your arousal and mood, which improves performance, Perham and Vizard note.

The new study does not necessarily contradict those previous findings, but does suggests some limitations on the benefits of music in memorizing lists of things in order, the authors wrote. It may still be the case that listening to music before performing a task like that helps cognitive abilities. But this new research suggests that it might be better to study for an exam in quiet, or listen to music beforehand.

Still, given the small sample size, the study provides only preliminary results that need to be further explored in other experiments.


soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Michelle

    A study of how many people? You gotta be kidding me, right? Please don't tell me that they are actually going to publish this so called "study" with a sample size as small as 25. This is generalization to the max!

    July 27, 2010 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • My Kid N SID

      Totally agree with Michelle, the sample size is prone to major error, did they factor in for error? What time of the day was this conducted?

      As the Mum of two boys with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (Sensory processing disorder), music actually helps them focus and study better – we follow the Samonas programme when the going is tough. My youngest also needs an element of background noise otherwise the quiet becomes too noisy.

      A lot of it drills down to how your brain can process the sensory input around you, so as some of you have pointed out, it really depends on who you are and how your brain is wired.

      The University should spend its reduced funds on finding a way to help kids/adults focus and study better, not how not to.

      February 18, 2011 at 00:35 | Report abuse |
  2. msartintarm

    Interesting. I'm a college student enrolled in a broad range of classes and I love listening to music when I study. However, it's impossible to do so when studying for the 'arts' – anything involving reading or memorizing. It quickly becomes distracting. With math or computer programming, the music allows me to detach my mind from the subject at hand and happily work for much longer than otherwise, albeit unfocused. (I intern at a software development company and also listen to music there).

    From my findings, combined with this study, I find that the value of music while studying lies in the ability to be distracted while working, replacing the desire to randomly read news stories or talk to someone or check Facebook. (I have terrible ADHD and don't medicate, so without music this urge is ridiculously overpowering). This doesn't work when constant concentration is mandatory, such as in writing, but is amazing for programming, where one can spend hours doing mudane tasks.

    July 27, 2010 at 18:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jared

    For starters, I thought this was a well written piece. But, seriously, a sample size of 25? I'm pretty skeptical of these findings.

    July 27, 2010 at 18:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Rick

    Many years ago, I was an instructor at Jenda University in Taiwan (I'm an old white, male, born in Texas.) While teaching IT courses, I noticed how the Chinese folks memorized things like HTML tags by saying a number between each tag name … they said it very softly and rapidly … head down, two inches from the text book. It was a very staccato sound, very much like keeping pace with a rapidly ticking metronome. Needless to say, those folks all made 100 on their exams! I have since used the technique to help me win at Windows Solitaire!!!

    July 27, 2010 at 18:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katherine

      Say again? I am 14 and really need a way to revise well. What did they do?

      May 16, 2011 at 03:18 | Report abuse |
  5. Rick (and I forgot to mention ...)

    I totally agree with Michelle and Jared; the sample size completely invalidates their observations as it is unrealistically small. A more realistic, and believable sample would be, at a minimum, 2,500 … and 25,000 would validate their findings to anyone’s satisfaction.

    I've been in the IT industry for 42 years and I must disagree with msartintarm about music helping a person "program", even if it's "maintenance programming" (which IS notoriously difficult ... and boring.) I need absolute silence when plying my trade. I too have ADHD.

    July 27, 2010 at 19:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Page

    It's not clear to me whether it could actually be the inclusion of lyrics or the type of music that causes the issue. Sounds like a very preliminary work.

    July 27, 2010 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ricky

    A scientific breakthrough! I can only imagine what this leads to...
    "Study reveals watching TV may harm your studying."
    "Study reveals playing videogames may harm your studying."
    "Study reveals anything that distracts you while you're tudying may harm your studying."

    July 27, 2010 at 20:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ricky

      Come to think of it, I should be studying right now. Perhaps studying other people's studies could harm your studies as well?

      July 27, 2010 at 20:27 | Report abuse |
    • I LIKE CODY SIMPSON.

      hahahahahah oh my gosh.

      January 31, 2012 at 09:07 | Report abuse |
  8. Mark McKee

    Another thing they have found is that when material is presented in a pleasant or fun manner, learning and retention is increased. So if you have really boring or poorly presented material that makes you want to run screaming, you won't retain the information much after you've passed the test. So Barbra Streisand was right. It is the laughter, we'll remember. Of course this will never be implemented on a wide scale in good old puritanical Christian America, because even though having fun is better for learning, it's not worth it because if you have any fun in this life, well, you're gonna go to hell. Combine that with all those bitter ones in Academia who are going to make you suffer, because by God, they suffered. It's like we're afraid we're going to run out of misery, like we don't provide enough of it around the world, we must preserve misery in education because it is one of our great traditions??? The other thing that kills me is every 5 years or so, they report on a school in a bad neighborhood, where they introduced this new model and all the kids are suddenly all going to college, yet we never seem to be able to implement these changes across the country. Is it because it interferes with vital activities like athletics or proms? We need a study on why Americans never implement any of the good things they find in studies. Hey, then we could not implement the results of THAT study? No wonder we're the greatest nation on Earth!

    July 27, 2010 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Zachary

    Distractions are bad for studying? Next up: Open eyes bad for sleep.

    July 27, 2010 at 21:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Blob

      I am getting the distinct impression that most of these 'studies' that we see being published on CNN especially must be done by aliens. Who else would take the time to analyze to DEATH the most mundane and obvious of theories?

      'Studies show that people who eat frequent restrooms' WOW !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 3, 2010 at 18:02 | Report abuse |
  10. Crazy Waiter

    This is common sense. Music distracts the hell out of me when even trying to just read a book.

    July 27, 2010 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Crazy Waiter

    Come to think of it I can only study when I am alone in complete silence. I get too distracted if I try to sudy at a library, a coffe shop, on the lawn of my college campus. If I see people walking by or hear people talking I can't concentrate.

    July 27, 2010 at 22:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Ralph Celi

    I agree with Michele, the sample size makes the results of this study useless; that is why they did not show confidence level. This kind of reports should pass a review, because it is not serious, unless it is incomplete, and some vital information have been left out.

    July 28, 2010 at 01:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. WTF?

    You need a study to tell you that? What a waste of money.

    July 28, 2010 at 04:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • STFU

      ahhhhh, good one. Not.

      September 26, 2012 at 07:50 | Report abuse |
  14. Jason

    This does make sense as to why the effect should happen. If you want to learn something and recall it then you have to be focused on one task. People may not like it but limiting distractions helps performance, and most people are easily distracted. A study should also be done to see if it has a similar effect on drivers.

    July 28, 2010 at 05:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Robby

    Wow, I didn't realize the internet was inundated with researchers! Agreed: a sample size of 25 is minute...However, notice wording such as "may actually be" and "might be better." I believe the purpose of (this) research is to start the dialogue, not act as definitive results. I hope everyone experiments with manipulating study variables to improve learning while not 'swallowing' research results 'whole.'

    July 28, 2010 at 07:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Lettuce Pray

    I wonder if they were listening to music while they were doing this study about listening to music while studying.

    July 28, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I LIKE CODY SIMPSON.

      did you listen to music while doing this? BAM

      January 31, 2012 at 09:05 | Report abuse |
  17. rebekah bowser

    LOL Ricky! @ Robby: Agree... start a dialogue. I remember a study stating that listening to classical music with a certain meter would help concentration so this just furthers the conversation.

    July 29, 2010 at 10:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. It makes sense

    Even with a small sample size of 25, it validates that which should be common sense. The problems is that kids think they know better. They want to listen to music, so the rationalize and say that it helps them study. Kids believe that nothing adults say applies to them, that they're superhuman. You could tell young students to get plenty of sleep and eat a good breakfast before an important test, and they won't believe you. Kids these days!

    July 30, 2010 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Takara

    Everyone studies in their own way. Most can't deal with distractions like music, ike myself. However some can. Although I think that it was a waste of a study. That's just common sense.

    July 31, 2010 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • STFU

      are you black?

      September 26, 2012 at 07:53 | Report abuse |
  20. Toshi O.

    I personally think music helps to improve concentration when doing a repetitive task.
    Not just a boring task like working on an assembly line, but also writing code, writing an article.

    I've even heard that its best to listen to the same song over and over again to get your brain into the "zone."
    It works for me – although as the comments above mention, not a big enough sample size.

    Toshi O

    August 21, 2010 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Bill

    Like msartintarm i am also a college student and i find that when doing tasks that require problem solving or homework such as a worksheet that any type of music that is fast paced will work. When studying for and exam or final when it requires reading and having the information sink in and actually be learned that music without lyrics like techno, classical, or natural sound(rain/thunderstorm) works well. Nothing is more productive than dead silence, because when studying, reading out loud helps interpret, so the only sound is your voice with the information. When science is not available, as this is the case most of the time music without lyrics, as mentioned above, is my best study tool.

    May 17, 2011 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Science

    WOW everyone who is saying 25 is a small sample size.
    Do your research and realize there a lots of major findings and studies where a sample size of 3 is accepted. 25 is good.

    December 27, 2011 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Fred

    i think Science is right. and i'm smart so...

    January 15, 2012 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jim

    The deniers of the logic of this study are hilarious!

    It is only common sense that music, especially with lyrics, will distract your concentration. Just because you don't like something, doesn't make it untrue:)

    January 31, 2012 at 22:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. cathy

    interesting

    February 2, 2012 at 21:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. nad.

    Hmm, I listen to rock music when I'm studying. It actually helps me to concentrate. My conclusion : each and every person has their own unique way to study.

    March 19, 2012 at 09:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. nad.

    Hmm, I listen to rock music when I'm studying. It actually helps me to concentrate. My conclusion : each and every person has their own unique way to study.

    March 19, 2012 at 09:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Daryl

    Your theroys are wrong you are the only dr. That has thought music is harmful in working environment so you should run some more tests and actually post them

    May 2, 2012 at 12:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. dhouse1985

    My question is: Were people asked to repeat the list while listening to music as well? Kind of like how people say memories can be linked to smells, could the things being learned be re-triggered by the presence of music, but are harder to recall in the absence of music. I, myself, do homework much better while listening to music. But I will be the first to admit that sometimes, certain details learned with music are forgotten when it comes to a test, so I wonder if I would have preformed better had I had the option to listen to music while testing.

    May 24, 2012 at 16:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Firelily

    i beleive that this article was a complete waste of time. im a seventh grader and i must gather research for a rebuttle on this subject. i think we SHOULD be allowed to listen to music while in school, though not during lectures. i also agree with anyone who says 25 is to miniscule of a testing number. maybe i'll see what you guys reply with later. TTYL

    December 11, 2012 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Firelily

    Sorry that my post was pathetic and full of mistakes.

    December 11, 2012 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Ame

    I only do well when I study while listening to music. It's been like that since I was a kid. Music gives me energy to keep doing something and not feeling bored or alone. I guess everybody is different. I can go for hours studying with music, but without it I feel bored and quit doing whatever I am doing.

    May 11, 2013 at 18:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Lordsonroy

    I listen to music while studying and writing but i perform well it is not distracting me

    November 17, 2013 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Andy

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    November 25, 2013 at 04:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. uuuu

    hu

    November 25, 2013 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. kk

    Well I do listen music while studying, and somehow it distracted my attention too... but on the other side it wakes me up for more time then usual and force me to concentrate more too! how is it bad!

    February 11, 2014 at 11:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. big richard

    I like to listen to Mozart when doing the dirty deed. It helps me concentrate. It's especially good when we can coordinate our Os to coincide with the crescendo!

    February 11, 2014 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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