Does Listening To Background Music Help You Learn?

musica marinDo you enjoy playing music when you read or study? Listening to background music, especially classical or new age melodies, has a calming effect and can help lift your mood. On the other hand, it may not be a good idea to listen to tunes if you’re doing work that requires memorization or recall. According to a new study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, listening to background music while studying or learning new material can interfere with the ability to remember.

Does Listening to Background Music Reduce Cognitive Performance?

Researchers asked a group of young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty to listen to and recall eight letters of the alphabet in order while listening to background music. The participants were asked to perform this task while listening to music they enjoyed – as well as music they disliked. They were also tested in a quiet environment without music and in a setting where they heard random, changing numbers – and against a background where they heard repetitions of a single number played over and over again.

How did listening to background music affect their recall? The participants performed the worst when they tried to recall the eight letters in an environment with background music playing – and also when they heard random, changing numbers in the background. They recalled best when the environment was quiet – and when a single number was repeated over and over in the background. Whether or not they liked the background music didn’t affect the results.

How Does Listening to Background Music Reduce Cognitive Performance?

Researchers speculate that the constantly changing tones and words in songs interfere with the ability to memorize and recall new information – since the participants did poorly with both background music and in an environment where different numbers were played randomly in the background.

Listening to background music may not be all bad. A 1997 study showed that undergraduate students performed better on cognitive tests if they took them while listening to background music. What does this mean? Listening to background music could be an interference when learning or memorizing new information, but beneficial during test taking where it may help to reduce stress.

Should You Listen to Background Music?

It all depends on what you’re doing. If you’re studying and learning new information, silence may be the best, particularly if you’re listening to music with lyrics. If you’re doing repetitive computer work that doesn’t require learning new information, soft background music could serve as a stress reliever. If you choose to listen to music, choose soft, soothing music without words and keep the volume low.


Percept Mot Skills. 1997 Dec;85(3 Pt 2):1435-8.
Medical News Today. “Background Music Can Impair Performance, Cites New Study”