Does listening to music help learning?

STUDY: Perham, N. and Currie, H. (2014) Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance?, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28 (2), pp.279–284 [LINK]

Chart from Studies that every teacher needs to know by Busch and Watson (2019)

That listening to music while studying (specifically, reading assigned content for comprehension) is good for you, is one of those myths that persist, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, and perhaps are the result of headlines that report research related to music and learning, without including the details.

It is true that listening to likable, usually classical music (such as Mozart or Vivaldi) increases performance on some spatial tasks. What usually gets left out in study reports is that such listening effect is obtained when people listen to music BEFORE engaging in the tested task / condition, not at the same time (during the task / experimental condition). In this case, current psychology mostly attributes increased performance not to music per se, but rather to increased arousal and focused attention before the evaluated-performance task begins.

Perham and Currie carefully designed (and replicated since) study of 30 students showed that listening to any music (liked music with lyrics, disliked music with lyrics, similar conditions without lyrics), while reading standard SAT passages for comprehension, produced lower comprehension scores and decreased recall quite consistently. This is consistent with numerous studies that focused on distracting noises and their effects on performance on various tasks.

There have been other studies, but perhaps the strength of this approach is its simplicity: the 4 conditions are clear, and the results are unambiguous (comprehension score on a reading assignment). Many studies include many and often more complex variables and experimental designs (see Garrett Myles 2017 that includes various cognitive dimensions), and (not quite surprisingly) often produce inconclusive results. This study has a simple focus, that will be helpful to students: does listening while reading assigned text for comprehension help. The simple (actionable, easily applicable) answer is no. If we complicate things (does this affect into- and extroverts similarly? does this affect different types of cognitive tasks differently?) the results become more ambiguous and inconclusive.

So, despite the myth that persists, while listening to relaxing music BEFORE an intensive study session might have a sight beneficial effect, listening while studying (reading) affects the results negatively, and is best avoided. As the authors of the study concluded: “In sum, this novel study reveals that despite liking certain lyrical music, it is as detrimental to reading comprehension as listening to disliked lyrical music. Music without lyrics was shown to be less detrimental but, expectedly, performing reading comprehension was best in quiet conditions.”

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