Checking It Out: Does music interfere with studying?

Have you ever seen your children studying with iPod earplugs in their ears and wondered how they stay focused?

Experts say that they don’t, at least not as well as they would if the music weren't on--unless, that is, the music is solely instrumental.

There have been countless research studies over decades about the effect of music on the brain. Some are contradictory; for example, there is the body of thought that listening to Mozart does, if only briefly, increase I.Q. vs. the belief that it has no effect at all.

But the research on music--and now, multitasking-- while studying is becoming clear, experts say.

So what happens when your child studies for a science test with Jay-Z pouring from an iPod?

According to Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, the human brain listens to song lyrics with the same part that does word processing, which is the same part that supposedly is being employed for studying, he said.

Something has to give, and it is the ability your child has to do the work he or she is supposed to be doing.

Instrumental music is another story. For the most part, it is processed on the other side of the brain from the part that is processing language.

“So if you are reading and listening to instrumental music you get virtually no interference,” Nass said. “The music would not, in fact affect you, unless you are thinking deeply about the music, like, ‘I wonder why Chopin chose the F sharp.’”

Nass is a communications professor who also has appointments in the departments of computer science; education; science, technology and society; cognitive science and sociology. The focus of his research is on the social-psychological aspects of human interaction with media.

He and some Stanford colleagues recently added to the body of research that proves your kids are also wrong when they say that they can study while they listen to music, text their friends and do all manner of other things.

They conducted a series of experiments with two different groups of people--heavy media multitaskers and light media multitaskers.

The results: Those doing more tasks at once performed more poorly on a test of task-switching ability. The researchers said this likely is due to a reduced ability to stop focusing on one task as they moved to another one.

Even though American society is filled with multitaskers who think they are accomplishing more than ever, researchers say they aren’t doing as much, or as well, as they think.

Do you work while listening to music, and do you think it affects how well you are able to stay focused? Are you a multitasker and do you think it affects the quality of your work?
What about your kids?

By Valerie Strauss  |  October 20, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Checking It Out , Learning  | Tags: Music While Studying Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | Del.icio.us | Digg | Stumble Previous: Obama and sensible school lunch schedules
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Comments

For us, no music, no nothing, not now. This is the girl who broke down last week with "Mommy, how do you expect me to get my work done with that clock ticking so loudly?" The last thing she needs is more distractions.

On the flip side, if we find something down the road that helps instead of hurts, then sure -- like, I don't know, those relaxation tapes or something. But for now, we just make the homework environment as calm and peaceful as possible.

Posted by: laura33 | October 20, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Let me get this straight--kids can't study with a radio playing lyrics (and, presumably, speech), but bank tellers and other clerks can do their work perfectly with a radio in the background and grocery shoppers can make sense out of food labels with the p.a. system paging employees and urging them to buy things. (Never mind the effect of the noise on the hearing-impaired; many times my hearing-impaired parents had to leave a store without something they wanted because they couldn't hear the clerk's directions over the background noise.)

I myself like our classical radio station just because there is a minimum of chatter, but if that isn't an option, why can't we have some peace and quiet?

Posted by: opinionatedreader | October 20, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Opinionatedreader:
Researchers would say that anybody who is multitasking is affected in some way. Of course, the extent of the effect would relate to the task a person is trying to do. I would argue that reading a food label in the grocery store does not take the same amount of brain power as studying for a Geometry or AP History test.

The Answer Sheet

Posted by: straussv | October 20, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

As a high school computer science teacher I am constantly faced with the questions of "forbidden" iPods. Listening to music may divert a learner's attention more than they admit but the question has to be as opposed to what? Are they better off studying in a silent atmosphere? Perhaps, but how often is that achieved? Music may be drowning out other distractions that are worse for learning.

Posted by: sopranovcm | October 20, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

sopranovcm
Another factor could be motivation. . . a student's efficiency per minute may be lower with their favorite music playing, but arguably they might stick with the task longer. . .

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | October 20, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

As a high school computer science teacher I am constantly faced with the questions of "forbidden" iPods. Listening to music may divert a learner's attention more than they admit but the question has to be as opposed to what? Are they better off studying in a silent atmosphere? Perhaps, but how often is that achieved? Music may be drowning out other distractions that are worse for learning.

Posted by: sopranovcm | October 20, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

sopranovcm, you make some good points. Even at work, I like to have some music on because it helps me block out other distractions, particularly when I need to focus intensely on something.

But I also found that complete silence wasn't good for me. All through college and grad school, I found that I was more likely to remain focused on the task at hand if the radio was on, or the TV set to a baseball game (it doesn't work for other sports, strangely enough). If it was silent, I was far more likely to "wander" and click open the internet.

Posted by: RedBirdie | October 20, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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