Friday, 4 April 2014

Turn Off the Music?

 Your teenager is studying in her bedroom, preparing for tomorrow’s English test.  Books are strewn everywhere, music is blaring.  Her head bops along in time to the tune.  You barge in and start haranguing her:  “How can you study with such loud music?  Surely it’s distracting you.  And studying English too!  The words of the music are interfering with your studying!”

The idea that the music is impeding her studying makes sense to most people.  The music is yet another source of information entering the teenager’s brain, and so will be distracting.  And vocal music will be especially distracting because the words in the songs will be competing for mental space with the words that she is supposed to be studying.  But from the teenager’s point of view, the music is not distracting; instead, it helps her focus on her work.

Who is right? Does background music during studying help or hinder?  And does it matter whether the music is vocal or instrumental?   

These questions were addressed in a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich.  They studied almost 200 people who learned lists of words while listening to either vocal music, instrumental music, or no music.  The people were shown fifty words, one at a time, on a screen, and then had to write down as many words as they remembered.  This was repeated several times, using the same words each time.  The people also were tested to see how many words they could recall thirty minutes later and then again two weeks later.  The researchers found that listening to music didn’t seem to have any effect in the long-term learning of the words.  They did find a small detrimental effect of listening to vocal music during the first few presentations of the words:  the vocal music group recalled slightly fewer words on the first few trials.  This effect was not seen for recall at later times.  After the initial learning, the words were equally well recalled regardless of whether the people had been listening to music or not.  

Previous studies looking at the effects of background music on learning have given mixed results.  A number of studies, especially those using classical music, have shown that people learn better if background music is played, because it makes them more relaxed and focused.  Other studies have found that background music is distracting. Lutz Jäncke, the lead author of this current study, had previously found that when people try to study while listening to music, their brains were more active, presumably because they have to work harder to tune out the music.  He suggests that the current results show that people are able to effectively ignore the music, and that is why it has no effect on their learning.

So should you harass your teenager to turn down the music while they’re studying?  My vote is no.  Everyone has their own preferences about listening to music while studying.  Personally, I do find vocal music to be distracting, and always put on quiet classical music to study or write.  Okay, I’ll admit that my preferred background music is always Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (the 1981 recording), on repeat. It’s what works for me, my personal voodoo.  So let your teenager decide for herself if the music is distracting or not.  Research says the music is probably not going to interfere with her learning.


Jäncke, L., Brügger, E., Brummer, M., Scherrer, S., and Alahmadi, N. (2014). Verbal learning in the context of background music: no influence of vocals and instrumentals on verbal learning. Behav Brain Funct 10, 10.

1 comment:

  1. I admit the sense of learning with background takes part of our lives now n in every situation is there to sostain us,so there is no harm in listening to music while.....