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Is your favorite music distracting you?

Do you listen to music while you do assigned homework? Do you listen to music while you study? Do you listen to music while you are reading for class? If you are a college student I would assume that you said yes to at least one of these questions. As college student, when I am in the library or any public study space I often see the majority of my peers with headphones in while doing their work. Whether or not they are all just trying to avoid talking to me, I will never know, but I usually assume that there is some sort of sound or music coming from the headphones. Often people’s reasoning for doing this is because they want to “tune out” all of the distractions and conversations happening around them. Furthermore, if they are “tuning out” all of the distracting sounds around them then they think they are successfully staying focused and internalizing whatever material they are working on.

The invention of headphones is usually looked at in a positive light. How cool is it that we can have our own personal jam session without bothering anyone around us? Yet, at the same time how this constant auditory stimulus is affecting our cognitive processing is a question not often addressed. In a recent study by Nick Perham and Harriet Currie, they investigated whether or not listening to music affects comprehension performance. More specifically, they were interested in whether or not listening to preferred music affects comprehension performance. The requirements for the preferred music were that it had to contain lyrics and songs were repeated so that they lasted the length of the task condition (10 min). Chosen songs were from artists such as One Direction, Frank Ocean and Katy Perry. The researchers wanted to know whether or not the type of music that you listen to while you are studying (lyrical, non-lyrical, liked, disliked) can improve how well you retain that information.

In order to understand this study completely we must first address how information is processed. Two main limiting factors for successful memory of new information are whether or not you have devoted enough attentional resources to it and whether or not you have processed it for meaning. According to Kahneman and colleagues, our attention is allocated based on a capacity framework model. This model explains how our attention is a finite resource and how different activities and tasks require different amounts of that limited resource. So when you are listening to music, this model explains how you may have less attention at your disposal when trying to read for class or finish that problem set.

In addition to how much attention we have to complete a task we also must take into account how well we are attending to that information. Our brains work by processing information for meaning. Put simply, our memory works best when we are able to connect some sort of meaning to the new information that we are trying to learn. However, this system isn’t perfect and is susceptible to interference. In the case of listening to music while reading for example, both of those activities require you to attend to verbal cues if the music has lyrics. You are simultaneously reciting the words you are reading in your head while also trying to process the words you are listening to in the song. Both of these processes act on the same cognitive system, the phonological loop. The phonological loop is the system in working memory, that is responsible for our auditory and verbal information. The phonological loop exists in our working memory since working memory is the short term part of our memory that is responsible for our immediate processing of perceptual and linguistic information. When you tax the phonological loop in this way you are subsequently limiting the amount of new information that is getting processed for meaning. Essentially you are restricting the amount of information that you will be able to retrieve later. Armed with this information the researchers hypothesized that task performance on a reading comprehension test would be impacted by music preference and that performance would be better during a preferred music condition.

In Perham and Currie’s study they asked participants to perform a reading comprehension task (similar to an SAT or GRE reading test) while listening through headphones to “liked” music (music with lyrics chosen by participant earlier), “disliked” music (music with lyrics not chosen by participants), non-lyrical music, or a quiet condition with no exogenous sounds. Liked and disliked music conditions always had lyrics. At the end of the trial they were then given a questionnaire about the contents of the passage as well as a questionnaire on how well they thought they did on the task. Results showed that reading comprehension performance was greatest for the quiet and non-lyrical music conditions and poorest for the two lyrical music, “liked” and “disliked”, conditions. There was no significant difference between liked and disliked music as well as no significant difference between non-lyrical and quiet conditions suggesting that the main difference affecting performance on the comprehension task was whether or not the music had lyrics. The participant’s subjective performance ratings followed the same trend, believing that they performed best during the quiet and non-lyrical conditions followed by liked music and finally disliked music. However, participants believed that of the lyric music condition they performed better when they preferred the music rather than disliked it.

So we see that these findings are inconsistent with other research that says that listening to music whilst reading actually enhances your understanding of the reading. Instead these results show that no matter how much you like the music you are listening to, and no matter how much you think it is keeping you focused, it actually provides an attentional distraction that detracts from your ability to process the information for meaning and perform well on a memory test. So now we come to the question of whether or not listening to music while performing tasks that demand our attention for later retrieval, such as studying for an exam, is better than listening to all of the distracting conversations going on around you. According to this article, neither, because in both cases you are only giving a part of your attention to the task, whereas if you were in a quiet location you could be contributing more, if not all, of your attentional resources to that same task. The main take away from this article then is that in order to retain the most information and hopefully get the best results on your next exam try studying without the help of Justin Bieber or Beyoncé and maybe put a little more Beethoven in your life.

To view the full article click here


Perham, N., & Currie, H. (2014). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance? Applied Cognitive Psychology Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 28(2), 279-284. doi:DOI: 10.1002/acp.2994


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  1. mekopp
    December 10th, 2015 at 17:32 | #1

    It would be interesting to conduct a follow-up research on testing reading comprehension when participants also listen to music when being tested. There could be groups of participants that either match or mismatch the music previously heard and one control group with no music when being tested.

    According to the encoding specificity principle, participants should show higher reading comprehension performance when the music they listen to when reading the passage and the music they listen to when tested are the same (match). This would provide evidence that how we encode and retrieve information is interconnected. It also would show us that if there is a match in music, the music can act as a cue resulting in better memory due to context similarity. It would be interesting to see if the control group would still score higher in performance like in the experiment you described above.

  2. Lily Landry
    December 10th, 2015 at 23:42 | #2

    I’m not going to lie: I’ve found myself listening to my favorite music while studying. I know I shouldn’t, because I usually just find myself singing along rather than focusing on the work in front of me. While I’ve gotten better at turning the music off when I need to focus, I still find myself reaching for my headphones. Sometimes I’ll even try to be “good” and peruse the “studying” playlists on Spotify, which usually consist of classical music. Your post made me think about this perceived connection between classical music and studying/attention, which Perham & Currie (2014) addressed briefly in their paper. However, I thought it was interesting that they didn’t study the effects of classical music, but instead allowed participants to either choose their own music or be forced to listen to music they don’t like. I suppose I am just curious whether this positive correlation between classical music and studying has any evidence to back it up. In doing a little research, I came across a paper that investigated the Mozart effect, or the phenomenon in which people perform better on tests of spatial abilities after listening to classical music by Mozart (Thompson et al., 2001). The study found that the Mozart effect could be attributed to increased arousal and mood. Music we choose – as the participants did in the Perham & Currie (2014) study – would surely have the same effect, but our processing and recognition of the verbal information would draw from our attentional resources as you mentioned earlier. However, I would still be interested to see how classical music affects performance on the reading comprehension task utilized in this study. Building off of this, would different effects be seen in individuals well-versed in classical music? For instance, would composers show different effects when listening to classical music as compared to individuals with relatively little experience with the genre?


    Thompson, W.F., Schellenberg, E.G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science 12(3), 248-251.

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