When music is a distraction

Eva Amsen 🔬🎶
4 min readJun 21, 2018

Sometimes music helps you study. Other times it’s a major annoyance. What’s going on, and why are all the scientific studies so different?

Yesterday I described some studies that show a slight advantage, in some situations, of listening to music while you study. But what if you can’t study with music on at all? What if you need absolute silence to concentrate?

What kind of studying are you doing?

Depending on what kind of studying you’re doing, music may make the task easier or harder. If you need to comprehend what you’re memorizing, it might help to listen to music about what you’re learning. But if you just want music on in the background, consider what type of music you’re listening to and what kind of work you’re doing.

Music or no music?

In yesterday’s post I mentioned a study that found almost no effect of background music on people who were doing a memory task, and another few studies that found a positive effect of happy music on creative or spatial tasks. So what should you do if you’re not sure? From the way I described it here and in the previous post, it sounds like you should err on the side of music, because it either has no effect or a positive effect. But I didn’t give you the full story. Music can also be a distraction, and have a negative effect on your ability to comprehend what you’re trying to study.

Listening to music uses your working memory

For some people, having music on in the background makes it impossible to study. That was something that already came up in one of the studies from Ulm University I mentioned yesterday. Lehmann and Seufert specifically say in their paper: “Based on the results of this study, we cannot recommend learning with background music.” They point out that in particular people who don’t have a great working memory will find it different to study while having music in the background. That’s because listening to music also uses your short-term (working) memory. As you listen to a song, you briefly remember the lyrics you just heard (even if you forget them again later). If you also need to memorize your homework at the same time, you’re now doing two tasks that both use your working memory, and that can make it…

Eva Amsen 🔬🎶

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.