Madeleine Tolk

Silence vs. Sound: Can Music Facilitate Learning?

Blog Post created by Madeleine Tolk on Jun 27, 2018

When I was in elementary school, I had trouble focusing in one of my classes during reading time and tests. This was not due to a lack of motivation or interest; on the contrary, I loved reading and going to school each day. My lack of concentration was related to a specific sound -- music. My teacher at the time felt listening to classical music facilitated learning, and would often play it during quiet moments in class. My mind was unavoidably drawn to expressive melody lines, dissonant harmonies, and pulsating rhythms, and I couldn’t seem to listen passively without mentally attending to these musical elements. For me, background music was more of a distraction than a learning aid.


Many studies in the fields of psychology and neuroscience have demonstrated a correlation between music and enhanced cognitive performance; however, the findings are nuanced and sometimes contradictory. Can music really facilitate learning, or do these effects vary based on factors such as learning preferences and personality types? How do musical genres and different cognitive tasks affect this correlation?


“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Rekonstruktion aus dem Jahre 1819),” Barbara Krafft

Mozart for the Mind

“The Mozart effect” refers to a common misconception that listening to classical music enhances intelligence. The idea stems from a psychology study conducted in 1993 by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky. In the experiment, participants completed standard IQ spatial reasoning tasks after listening to three distinct sound conditions: a Mozart piano sonata, a relaxation tape, and silence. Rauscher et al. found participants scored significantly better on the tasks after listening to Mozart than either silence or the relaxation tape, with an increase of about 8 points on their IQ scores.


Although this effect lasted for only 10 to 15 minutes, the implications were widely misinterpreted. While the participants were college students, many people generalized the results, claiming early exposure to classical music could boost intellectual development in children. The idea that listening to Mozart could increase general intelligence became a popular cultural belief, despite the fact that this study examined only one domain of intelligence. In considering the effects of music on learning, it is also important to note this experiment examined participants’ task performance after listening to different sound conditions, rather than the effect of listening to music while simultaneously working on a task.

The Mood-Boosting Effects of Music

Despite difficulties in replicating the Mozart effect, many studies provide evidence that listening to music can facilitate learning and enhance cognitive performance. One prevailing theory suggests music can improve mood and motivation levels, alleviating some of the emotional strain associated with complex tasks. For example, Hallam et. al (2002) found calming background music had a positive effect on children’s altruism levels and performance on arithmetic and memory tasks, suggesting music perceived as relaxing or pleasant can significantly affect task performance and behavior. On the other hand, music perceived as arousing, unpleasant, or aggressive negatively affected children’s memory task performance and altruism levels, suggesting some types of music are less conducive to learning than others.


Several studies indicate these effects could be influenced by other factors such as personality and learning preferences. For example, a study conducted by Adrian Furnham and Anna Bradley (1999) found pop music hindered performance for both introverts and extroverts on memory and reading comprehension tasks; however, this effect was more significant for introverts. 


Another study provides evidence that music can be beneficial for both introverts and extroverts depending on the work environment. Dobbs et. al (2011) found while both extroverts and introverts performed better in silence than while listening to music, they also performed better on the music condition than while listening to general background noises, such as simulated office ambiance or people talking. This suggests it may be beneficial for students to listen to music while studying in areas like cafés that may have distracting background sounds.


Is Silence Superior?

Although many studies support the hypothesis that music can enhance cognitive processing, a large body of research suggests silence provides the optimal study environment. For example, Thomas Alley and Marcie Greene (2008) found students performed best on a memory task while working in silence compared to listening conditions with irrelevant speech or vocal and instrumental music, suggesting background noise and music can impede cognitive performance. Interestingly, students performed better on the instrumental music condition than on the irrelevant speech or vocal music conditions.

Another study by Nick Perham and Harriet Curie (2014) indicates studying in silence or while listening to instrumental music is preferable to studying while listening to music with lyrics. They found students performed best on a reading comprehension task while working in silence, and they also performed better while listening to music without lyrics than while listening to either liked or disliked music with lyrics. 

Takeaway Tips

Should students listen to music while studying? It depends. Students should consider various factors such as task complexity, musical genre, personality, and study environment before listening to a background playlist while doing homework. Based on the current research, here are several tips to keep in mind:

- Experiment with listening to enjoyable music before study sessions. Research building on “the Mozart effect” suggests listening to musical excerpts that induce positive mood and arousal prior to engaging in various tasks can lead to improved performance.

- Notice how you are feeling and adapt your study music choices based on your current mood and motivation levels. If you are feeling overwhelmed, try listening to calming or relaxing music to help alleviate stress levels. Consider listening to upbeat and pleasant music if you need a motivational boost.

- Take into account the complexity of the assignment and your environment, and adjust your study music accordingly. Try to study in silence for complex cognitive tasks like memorization or reading comprehension. If you must study in an area with potentially disruptive background ambiance, consider listening to music to avoid becoming distracted.

- Listen to instrumental music with limited acoustic variation. Avoid listening to music with lyrics while studying, especially when completing reading or writing assignments. Look for music that is enjoyable and somewhat repetitive. Some people find it helpful to listen to video game music or movie soundtracks, while others benefit from listening to meditation music or white noise.


Do you listen to music while completing tasks? Do you find it helpful or distracting?