Can students really study effectively while listening to music?

Most students listen to music while studying.  With either ipod in ears, itunes through the computer or even “old fashioned” DVD player going, students across Australia tonight are listening to anything from Beyonce to Good Charlotte to LMFAO (don’t ask) while they do their homework.  

And inevitably parents in these houses walk past, wondering:  “can they really concentrate with that going on in their ears?”

The truth is there are advantages to listening to music while studying.  Advantage number one is that most students say listening to music helps them study for longer.  This makes sense: homework can be boring. If something can make it slightly less boring, students are slightly more likely to keep doing it for longer.  Advantage number two:  listening to music has been found to be LESS distracting than listening to random office/household noise.  So if the noise of the house is high, then having music to block that out can help students concentrate.  Advantage number 3:  music puts students in a good mood.  This is helpful because the better mood we are in, the longer we persist on hard tasks and the better we do at difficult tasks:  good news for students.

So with all of that, what’s the problem with music?  The other side of the record (a pun for those over 35) is that research consistently shows that compared to silence, people are less able to do difficult tasks while listening to music.  Almost every study in this area shows that if you give people a problem solving task and then compare people who do it in silence compared to people doing in while listening to music, those working in silence do the task better and quicker than those listening to music.  It seems that music interferes with our attention and cognitive skills.  This is especially true for music with lyrics, music that is unpredictable and slightly bizarrely, it is also especially distracting for introverts compared to extroverts.

Given the advantages and disadvantages, here are the recommendations I give students about this issue:

  • Listen to music when you feel like you really “have to” – when you are bored, in a bad mood or tempted to stop (or can’t start) homework.
  • Listen to music if your house is really noisy and you can’t shut it out any other way.

BUT recognise that you will not be doing your absolutely best work when listening to music so try to:

  • Turn the music off when you are doing something quite hard (e.g revising for a test or trying to understand difficult concepts)
  • Listen to music without lyrics if you can (e.g classical, electronica), music that has a predictable beat/tune or music that is very familiar to you.
  • Turn the music down a couple of notches compared to the volume you listen to it normally.

Almost all students listen to music at some point while studying but it is worth having a discussion with them about what works and what doesn’t.

Do teens in your household listen to music while studying?  What do you think about that?