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.