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Music and Test Taking: When to Hit Pause

Do you ever listen to music while doing your homework? I know I do! In my opinion my iTunes library helps me stay on task and finish my work in a more timely manner. If you feel the same way I do, you should know that studies have shown that the effects of background music varying depending on the type of work you are doing; in some cases music can help you while in other situations you’re better off putting the headphones down.


In their 2011 study, Avila, Furnham & McCelland examined the effects of familiar music on test performance. The authors also explored whether the effects of music are different for people with certain personalities. They did this by comparing the effects of music on introverts (quiet, shy types) to that of extroverts (louder, more outgoing types). The experimenters believed that music would have a more negative impact on the test performance of introverts than it would on extroverts. This was hypothesized since previous studies have shown that introverts work best in less stimulating environments than extroverts do. Stimulating environments are ones that include possible distractions (things that could grab your attention). For example a public venue such as a train station would be seen as a much more stimulating environment than a quiet library.

To test this hypothesis, 58 British students with a mean age of 16.78 took three separate tests in silence, while listening to instrumental music, or while listening vocal music. For the instrumental condition, the same songs were used as in the vocal condition, just minus the lyrics. The songs used in the experiment were chosen based on the tempo and familiarity ratings of four students, who did not complete the experiment itself. The three songs they ended up using were picked for their high familiarity and median tempo scores. All of the chosen songs were radio hits you are most likely familiar with – “Umbrella” by Rhinna ft. Jay-Z, “So Sick” by Ne-Yo, and “Let Me Love You” by Mario. Before participants took their tests, they completed the Eysenck Personality Inventory  (EPI) to determine their level of extraversion. They then completed three 10 minute multiple choice tests. The tests fell into three categories: verbal, numeric, and diagrammatic. The verbal test evaluated the subjects’ understanding of a passage while the numeric test focused on their ability to interrupt the meaning of various tables. So the verbal test would be reflective of assignments you’ve had for English classes while the numeric tests would align much more with problem sets for classes like Statistics. The third type of test, the diagrammatic test, involved following flow diagrams. This type of visually demanding task could be similar to work you may have completed for Biology courses (for example life cycles or family trees).

The authors found that the participants performed at similar levels for all three music conditions on the numeric test but varied on both the verbal and diagrammatic tests. The results are summarized by the following graph:


Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 5.07.50 PM

As shown by the graph above, the verbal test scores were significantly higher in silence than in either music condition. Verbal scores suffered almost equally if either instrumental or vocal music was playing at the time of testing. Yet for the diagrammatic test students did significantly better with background music than they did in silence. The highest average for the diagrammatic test was in the instrumental condition, but scores were also noticeably higher with vocal music than in silence. As for the effects of personality, none were found in this study. The authors believe no effects were seen because the study had a fairly small participant group and extreme groups of extroverts and introverts were not chosen. In the future this would be a great area to explore further with a test group of strong extroverts and strong introverts.

From this study we can learn that personality should not dictate your study music, but the task at hand should. You’re better off steering clear of music when completing verbal heavy assignments (such as readings) but there is no need to press pause when interpreting diagrams and tables!


Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 40(1), 84-93. DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

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  1. Kacie Wrean
    October 18th, 2015 at 12:54 | #1

    When I am doing homework or studying, whether I play music or not depends on my mood. I think this may be a factor the experimenters did not consider that they maybe should have because if you are in the mood to just listen to music and not do work, the music will negatively impact your work, but if the opposite is true, the music may help keep you “in the zone” while you’re working. When working, if I play music with lyrics that I know well, I find myself unintentionally singing along or mouthing the words to the songs, which probably means that I am able to give less attention to my homework than I would with music without lyrics. I think as a part of this study, the researchers should have questioned participants as to whether they knew the lyrics to the songs and whether they noticed themselves singing along in their heads. This may not help clarify the results just because the singing along is not always something people notice unless it is pointed out to them or they find their attention drifting dramatically from the task at hand.

  2. March 20th, 2014 at 14:21 | #2

    I too am curious about the verbal results with lyrical music, as Professor Coane also appears to have been (based on comments). I would reiterate her notion that maybe the participants are maybe “singing-along covertly”, thus messing up their verbal test scores. I would take this further, referencing Mrs. Colford’s lovely post titled “Remember That Song?”. In it she discusses the effect that “liking” a tune has on recognition and memory for it. I would love to see some data from the Avila et al. study on whether the participants knew or recognized the tunes they were played. Personally, if I were forced to listen to modern pop radio music while taking a test I would walk out due to extreme ethical violations. I can imagine that I would be so distracted by the ridiculous lyrics that there would be no way to achieve any type of acceptable test result. I might imagine it would be the same if you presented me with certain music that I love. Even instrumental versions of music I love I can’t listen to while I study. For me it all depends on what emotion is associated with the music, as is echoed in Mrs. Colford’s post. I would say that to be truly valid, this experiment would need to be controlled for recognition and preference.

  3. mjgiblin
    March 19th, 2014 at 17:15 | #3

    When I’m studying I usually listen to piano music, and I had no idea why I felt more productive while listening to it. But when I am reading something, it is harder for me to concentrate when listening to any sort of music. It was very interesting to see that the results of this study are consistent with my study habits. I also remember reading somewhere that when you are studying for an exam, you remember more when you study in the classroom where the exam will be held. However, during an actual exam, there is no music. So why would studying with music be beneficial in some cases, while studying in the examination classroom suggests that one should exactly replicate the exam environment in order to remember more exam material? It would be interesting to analyze the results of more studies related to exam performance and studying environment.

  4. May 19th, 2013 at 18:17 | #4

    I really found this topic interesting as this is a common study habit that I have. However, I would be intrigued to learn how the researchers measured personality types. Depending on how the researchers categorized the participants, this data could be skewed or not indicative of a trend. Because personality can be so subjective and hard to measure, I would be interested to see any way to implement these results into more practical setting.

  5. May 16th, 2013 at 11:09 | #5

    I wonder whether the interference observed in the instrumental condition in the verbal task might reflect participants “singing along” covertly – if they were familiar with the song, they might have been trying to remember the lyrics, and that could have disrupted their verbal processing by requiring more attentional resources.

  6. May 12th, 2013 at 11:27 | #6

    I found this article very interesting as just the other day I asked my friend in the library how she could listen to music while doing her homework at the same time. I for one have a very difficult time doing my work when music is playing (and I would say most of my homework is of a verbal/writing type, consistent with the study). I would be interested to see where attention comes into play in regards to music and test taking/studying. Although personality type did affect ability to perform in the presence of music, I would suspect that attention would play a role. How do individuals with ADD, or ADHD perform in the presence of music? Is it distracting, or would results mimic this study highlighting that it is task that dictates the role of music and not individual characteristics.

  7. dampbench
    April 30th, 2013 at 14:12 | #7

    It’d be interesting to see whether a larger sample size, with equal representation among different personality types would reveal an effect for personality. Perhaps extroverts, for instance, would be relatively more capable at retaining information from verbal heavy assignments as they may generally be more familiar with studying in a more hectic environment or with larger groups of people. I wonder if skills developed through studying in a noisy external environment are transferable to those needed to focus on material while listening to music.

  8. Paige Pearson
    April 29th, 2013 at 10:24 | #8

    I thought this was very interesting. I would consider myself an introvert and absolutely can not listent to music while I study. Although personality did not have an effect on music listening and test performance, this is definitely something I never thought about. Since this experiment used popular songs, I wonder how different genres effect studying and test performance. I always hear how classical music can be beneficial to studying and test performance so it would be interesting to not only look at the different task at hand, but also the genre of music that someone might listen to while studying.

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