Not that you probably need science to tell you this, but music is amazing. Listening to your favorite tunes not only makes you happier and more creative, but even healthier (and if you’re into uplifting anthems, nicer too). Playing music at home is correlated with more laughter and more sex. Studying an instrument seems to help kids be more successful.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that music makes your life better. But according to research there’s at least one exception, a time when many of us pop on our headphones but really shouldn’t. Science is clear that whether you’re studying for an exam or trying to digest important information for work, you’ll learn more, faster if you study in silence.
Why studying to music is a bad idea.
Trying to cram facts in your head can be, frankly, pretty boring, which is why so many of us try to liven up the experience with a little music. But as I recently learned when I came across a series of UK Guardian articles on the science of learning for teachers, your favorite study music might be slowing down your learning.
The article explains recent British research that asked volunteers to study for a reading comprehension test either in silence, listening to pleasant pop songs, bombarded by heavy metal, or enjoying instrumental music. They then asked students to predict their performance and tested them on the material.
The results showed it didn’t matter whether the learners listened to Katy Perry or Death Angel, their performance was significantly lower than students who studied in silence. Those who listened to music without lyrics also scored lower that those who studied in silence, but not by as much.
“Students who revised [that’s British for studied] in quiet environments performed more than 60 percent better in an exam than their peers who revised while listening to music that had lyrics,” reports the Guardian.
The reasons for this large gap in performance is called the “irrelevant sound effect” and in a piece for The Conversation, Nick Perham, one of the researchers behind the study, explains how music interferes with reading comprehension and memorization.
“The irrelevant sound effect itself comes from attempting to process two sources of ordered information at the same time – one from the task and one from the sound,” he writes. When you read while listening to music with lyrics, “the two sources of words – from the task and the sound – are in conflict. The subsequent cost is poorer performance of the task in the presence of music with lyrics.”
There are lots of other times music is great.
The bottom line here probably isn’t happy news for music lovers: if you’re trying to do any kind of task that involves reading comprehension or memorization and you want to maximize your performance, then pop out those ear buds and plow through the material in silence. Or if you need at least a little background jam to keep you going, opt for instrumental music.
But don’t take things too far, as Perham notes, you’re likely to be more creative if you’re listening to music. And other research shows you can power through routine, boring tasks better with your tunes on. Music will only hurt your performance when it comes to specific types of learning. But in these situations it will really slow you down.