Saturday, August 8, 2020
US flag

Background music is both positive and negative

The effects of background music on productivity and learning vary from one person to another and may also depend on the type of music being played, reports staff writer Allie Bunting in The Prowler, the student newspaper at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville, Georgia.

“Music is a nice alternative to the quiet hum of a classroom, but does it actually benefit people in terms of the work they get done?” she writes before diving in. “A number of studies have explored the pros and cons of listening to tunes and have discovered that the power of music ranges far beyond background noise.”

It can distract some students, she writes, “especially if it’s a genre or artist they particularly enjoy.” In this case, the listener’s focus shifts back and forth, from the background music, to the task at hand, back to the lyrics and beat, and so on. On the other hand, soothing music can have a positive effect on productivity for some people, she says.

Theories abound about music stimulating the left and right brain simultaneously, but the bottom line from the most current research is that no significant differences can be found in controlled experiments that look at cognitive function, memory, and so on, between individuals who listen to background music while they study and those who don’t.

A study at Florida State University in 2010, for instance, conducted by Amanda Gillis for her master’s degree, hypothesized that students who studied without background music would be less distracted and would better remember material they were learning.

Yet, when she actually did the experiment, she had to come to a different conclusion. Here’s what she wrote:

The study investigated the effects of background music on reading comprehension skills of college students. Seventy-one participants read a health related article in one of three conditions: silence, music with lyrics, and music without lyrics. After reading the article, participants completed a demographic questionnaire. Participants in the music conditions completed an additional music questionnaire. To test reading comprehension, participants were asked to answer five multiple choice and five true/false questions pertaining to the reading. It was hypothesized that participants in the silence condition would perform better than participants in the music condition. Results indicated that there were no significant differences among groups.

Music does, however, affect people’s mood, notes the student newspaper. The paper quotes one senior as saying that music is “enlightening and puts me in a better mood.” Another senior was quoted as saying that music helps her concentrate. “I can turn on a song and it immediately reminds me of something that happened while listening to it,” she said.

But while experiences like these show how people perceive music as being important in their lives, we know that other harmless substitutes for music would have also put the first student in a better mood and the second student probably would have remembered what happened to her, if asked, without the music triggering the memory.

This is not to diminish the value of music for its own sake—artistic expression plays a huge and dominant role in human history, psychology, and sociology. We just have to keep it in perspective and stop looking for other habits, like shopping, getting high math scores, etc., that correlate with listening to or performing music. Controlled studies keep coming up empty.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

Recent posts

Voxitatis congratulates the COVID Class of 2020

2020 is unique and, for high school graduates, different from anything they've seen. Proms, spring sports, & many graduation ceremonies are cancelled. Time for something new.

Vertical addition (m3.nbt.2) math practice

3rd grade, numbers and operations in base 10, 2, 3-digit vertical addition practice problem

Rubber ducks (m3.oa.1) math practice

3rd grade, operational and algebraic thinking, 1, rubber ducky modeling practice problem

Distance learning begins as Covid-19 thrives

What we learn during & from coronavirus, a challenging & imminent crisis, will provide insights into so many aspects of our lives.

Calif. h.s. choir sings with social distancing

Performances with the assistance of technology can spread inspiration across the globe even as the coronavirus spreads illness and disease.

Families plan to stay healthy during closures

Although schools are doing what they can to keep students learning and healthy during the coronavirus outbreak, that duty now shifts to parents.

Illinois temporarily closes all schools

IL schools will be closed on Tuesday, March 17, through at least March 30. Schools in 18 states are now closed due to coronavirus.

Coronavirus closures & cancellations

Many schools are closed and sports tournaments cancelled across America during what the president called a national emergency: coronavirus.

Coronavirus closes schools in Seattle

The coronavirus pandemic has caused colleges to cancel classes, and now Seattle Public Schools became the nation's first large district to cancel classes due to the virus.

Most detailed images ever of the sun

A new telescope at the National Solar Observatory snapped the most detailed pictures of the sun's surface we have ever seen.

Feds boost Bay funding

Restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed received a boost in federal funding in the budget Congress passed last month.