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A few days ago, my wife came back from work, remarking at how different walking around the city feels when you’re listening to music. How it feels almost as if you’ve become a character in your own movie, with a soundtrack that makes even the rush hour subway rides and crazy long lines at Trader Joe’s a little more pleasant (while they’re not always as nightmarish as this article makes them seem, sometimes things do get so packed that there’s a line just to get into the store).

Indeed, the music we listen to can affect our moods in a pretty meaningful way – which is awesome, because being in a good mood is generally a positive thing. 

But what about when we’re studying or doing homework?

Some of my friends in college pretty consistently had their stereos or headphones on while studying. Others, of course, tended to gravitate towards total silence. And then there were a few who would put music on, but seemed to have very particular preferences about the kind of music they would play while studying (e.g. classical or instrumental vs. classic rock vs. death metal).

So I’ve always wondered…does listening to music influence the effectiveness or efficiency of our study time in any way? And if so, does it matter what kind of music we listen to?

Three types of music

A pair of British researchers were curious about this as well, and recruited thirty undergraduate students – who reported disliking thrash metal.

(I know that sounds pretty random, but you’ll see why this matters in a moment…)

The participants were presented with four short passages from an SAT prep book (like “Silent film industry,” “Emergence of Genetics,” etc.), each followed by 6 questions to gauge their reading comprehension.

Each passage took about 10-15 minutes to complete, during which time they either worked in silence (the no music condition), or with one of three different kinds of music playing through headphones1.

The three different types being:

  1. a song with vocals that they liked from their personal music collection (the like-vocal condition),
  2. or the song Seemingly Endless Time by the acclaimed thrash metal band Death Angel (the dislike-vocal condition),
  3. or the instrumental song The Ultra Violence , also by Death Angel (the no-vocal condition).

Each song played on a loop until the participant was finished with the passage they were working on. And when they were ready to move on to the next passage, the music would switch to one of the other songs (or silence).

So did their reading comprehension performance change at all as the music changed?

Lyrics

Apparently, music with lyrics is disruptive to reading comprehension performance, as the students got the most questions wrong when they were listening to either the music they brought with them, or the Death Angel song with lyrics. 

Like vs. dislike

But the participants’ scores were pretty much the same, whether they were listening to music they liked, or the Death Angel song, which, as non-fans of thrash metal, they presumably did not like. So while this was kind of a surprise to me, apparently it doesn’t matter whether we like the music we’re listening to or not, when it comes to studying effectively.

Silence vs. instrumental music

As you probably already guessed, the participants did significantly better when studying in silence. 

But their performance when studying in silence was about the same as when they were listening to the instrumental music. So, it seems that listening to music is not too much of a distraction (at least when reading or doing something verbal in nature) if there are no lyrics.

And if you’re thinking about getting around this by cueing up some K-pop or music from another country, well, kudos for the crafty idea, but I’m afraid that may not work. Another study suggests that it doesn’t matter whether we speak the language or not. Even unfamiliar verbal sounds seem to be a distraction.

What about math?

And what about listening to music while crunching numbers in your head? Well, although this study doesn’t necessarily answer that question, other studies have found that mental arithmetic performance drops when there’s music (with words) playing in the background. So vocal music may not be so helpful when dealing with numbers either.

What about motor skills?

What about motor learning? Well, this is less clear, although I did have an interesting experience a few months ago, where I was trying to learn a new technique in a class I was taking, as music played in the background. Normally, there’s no music, and on this particular day I did find it to be especially challenging to follow the instructor’s directions and execute the various details of the new technique. 

Then again, nobody else seemed to have a problem with the music, so it may have just been me. Although studies do suggest that introverts are more disrupted by background music and noise than extroverts, so the way music affects us when learning could vary with certain personality characteristics too.

Takeaways

So what’s the main takeaway from all of this?

Well, studying in silence is probably the safest bet. And if you are going to listen to music while studying, it probably ought to be instrumental music of some kind.

But for me, I think the main takeaway from this study is that it’s important for us to monitor our own level of focus while studying.

The participants in this study were asked to judge how well they felt they performed in each of the conditions. And for the most part, their self-awareness was pretty on-point, as they thought they did best in the quiet condition, followed by the non-lyrical music, and then the liked and disliked lyrical music pretty much tied at the bottom.

So if we’re honest with ourselves, and take the time to tune into our own sense of whether we’re optimally focused or not, we’ll probably know if our surroundings are helping or hurting our efforts. Whether it’s the music, general ambience of the coffee shop, or our grumbling tummy, periodically checking in with ourselves to gauge our focus is probably a useful habit to get into.

Because if we’re drifting off mentally or feel like some of our brainpower keeps leaking out, it’s probably a sign that our time is better spent taking a break anyway!

Footnotes

  1. Set to a moderate volume of about 65-75dB.