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Curriculum Catch-Up - Listening to Music while Studying

Term 3 assessment block is fast approaching, and our girls are well underway with their preparations for upcoming examinations. Many girls like to listen to music whilst they are studying. This seems like a good opportunity to hTave a fact-based discussion around the effects of listening to music whilst studying.

It seems clear to me that with the ubiquitous presence of smart phones, it is easier than ever to listen to almost any music at any time and at any place. This in turn has resulted in more social acceptance of headphones used in public spaces including educational facilities. As a result, many students feel comfortable listening to music under a variety of conditions including whilst completing schoolwork. However, scientifically speaking, listening to music during study may not actually be beneficial.

Many people believe that listening to music increases cognitive ability. This has been termed the Mozart Effect and for many it has come to mean that listening to music whilst studying makes you smarter. The Mozart Effect was reported by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky in an experiment where they had students listen to Mozart’s piano sonata, to relaxation music, or to nothing, before performing a spatial reasoning task. They found that participants’ performance on that task improved after they had listened to the Mozart sonata compared to the other conditions. However, there are several pertinent points to note about the research:

  • the effect is short-lived, with the positive enhancement in spatial reasoning only lasting for 10-15 minutes,

  • the improvement is restricted to a quite abstract mental rotation task that is only a small part of assessing intelligence, and

  • other studies were not able to replicate this finding.

The Mozart Effect has no relevance for educational practice and, unfortunately, listening to Mozart will not make you smarter.

There is also an assumption (often encouraged by headphone manufacturers) that music puts you in a positive mood, and as a result, it has a positive effect on your academic performance. Conversely though, the changing state hypothesis states that rapidly changing music will distract learning and lead to poor performance. Which is correct?

In one study, participants studied vocabulary pairs either under silence or with classical music playing in the background. Participants underwent three sessions and were tested one week later. The results show that participants tend to perform better on the final test when they had listened to music while studying vocabulary. However, the author of that study acknowledges that not all participants benefitted to the same extent from listening to background music during studying.

Another study looked into this more closely and investigated the role of personality traits for the effects of background music on different cognitive tasks. The results of this study are quite mixed. For instance, whether performance was hindered or helped by background music depended on the type of task. Verbal reasoning was better with music compared to silence, but abstract perceptual reasoning was hurt by simultaneously listening to music. Background music showed a negative effect on introverted people for abstract reasoning, and no positive effect on extroverted people. For verbal reasoning, introverts and extroverts were not affected differently by listening to music while performing the task. Abstract reasoning is more complex than the verbal reasoning. If the task at hand is quite complex and you are more on the introverted spectrum you are likely better off studying without music.

So, should you listen to music while you are studying? Certainly, features of the task seem to play a crucial role and studying complex material that requires you to engage all your focus on what you are trying to understand may be hindered by any kind of background music. Tasks that require you to keep track of several pieces of information at one time while processing them may be particularly affected by any kind of background music or noise and are best done in complete silence. Your personality seems also to play a role on whether you will benefit at all from listening to your favourite tunes while studying. To complicate things even further, we have seen that an interaction of both factors, task complexity and personality, may be in place.

This week’s article is based on the work of Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel


Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Dr John Fry

Deputy Principal - Studies


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