I walked into my eighth grade English class, I sat down at one of the desks waiting for the bell to ring. I popped one of my headphones in my ear and went on my phone to scroll through Instagram. By this time many of my classmates had sat down and done the same thing, most of us had music playing even if we weren’t completely listening to the music we had playing just because that was the normal. We listen to music all the time. On the bus, eating food, waiting for class and even during class. But today, the teacher had a different idea.
That day, my teacher addressed the class from the front of the room. We were about to start a writing assignment but she had one more instruction: “Put away your headphones.” She told us that she would prefer if we didn’t listen to music in class. She was very set on her “no music” policy, and claimed that a scientific study had proven that music cannot help you with studying or help you focus on your work.
We were astonished. “But music helps me concentrate better!” I thought to myself. I was skeptical. Many of my classmates tried to persuade her, but she held her ground.
My teacher’s claim was shocking in part because among high school students, there is a widely held assumption that music is helpful for school work. In a survey of 20 of my classmates, 75% were in favour of listening to music while they worked, and 95% said that music either “always” (65%) or “sometimes” (30%) helps them concentrate, while only 10% considered it distracting and only 5% said it didn’t help them at all.
As it turns out, the science on the subject is a bit thin, though many writers have strong opinions on the subject. A post on Study.com lists the benefits, like how it can help with anxiety and stress or improve your mood thus motivating you to work harder, and some of the cons like students who are trying to work on a literary assignment can have absorbed less information than if they weren’t listening to music.
The assumption of music being beneficial when working comes from the infamous “Mozart Effect,” but many other studies have disproved the theory and that it isn’t Mozart’s music but the mood it put people in. The way that these specific studies were conducted they listened to the music then shut it off and worked in silence, but many people listen to the music as they are working so this has a different effect than what they study for this theory.
With students always plugging into music, the type of music would definitely have an impact on their performance of written work. A study I found compared the effects of vocal music, instrumental music and white noise. Participants worked in separate rooms with just one type of music playing and no other noise, they then collected the results. The study concluded that working with instrumental music was roughly the same as working with white noise, but working to music with lyrics caused significant disruption to performance. This study seemed to confirm my teacher’s suggestion.
If the lyrics affect performance, wouldn’t the tempo of the music have some effect? I thought that an upbeat song would be more distracting than slower paced songs but this wasn’t the case. With this other study I came across on the effects of tempo concluded that “there were no differences in either the quantity or quality of the work produced by the groups ”that listened to slow, fast, or no music at all.” This study used instrumental music, confirming that while instrumental music may not be preferable to silence, it isn’t worse either.
The scientific study of working with music playing seems to be always in the context of music verses silence, rather then music verses classroom noise. None of the studies talked about the idea if it would be beneficial to performance when blocking out noise in public places, although one did confirm that a news broadcast in the background was disruptive. Classrooms are not always silent like the studies that were conducted. In an informal sampling of classrooms in my school, I found that student work time typically a fair amount of chatting in the room more often than silence. In public places you cannot control that noise but music, which the studies show is no worse than silence, can drown it out
The studies seems to indicate that if a classroom is quiet, music won’t help, but if there is audible chatting in the room, instrumental music might have the effect of creating a study environment more like a quiet place.
So, does music actually help with concentration? The science supports that lyrics are more disruptive but whether or not music can help may depends on the classroom situation. It also depends on what your current mood is, since music can help regulate your mood, and it is hard to study when your mood is low. So before you automatically plug your music in to get down to work, take a listen to your surroundings, and take a quick temperature of your own mood to see whether or not you really need it.