The Influence of Background Music on Learning

Humans have enjoyed a special relationship with music since time immemorable. Not only is it a source of entertainment, but it has also provided the background for various types of activities. New studies have suggested that music can be more powerful than medication. It is known to decrease pain, improve immune function, enhance neural networks, lower stress, reduce mood swings, and improve sleep.

Studies have shown that music can help retrieve old memories and create new ones. So, if music can influence memory, can it influence learning as well? Here’s a look at some of the most important scientific findings regarding background music’s influence on learning.

What is background music?

Background music is any music that is intended to be heard but not purposely or actively listened to. It does not refer to organized or analytical listening. Background music during the learning process plays in the background and is not related to the main task – namely learning.

While our response to music is remarkably consistent across cultures, we all have our individual preferences. So, what some might consider being music might be just noise to another. It’s the same with background music. While some find background music soothing, some would think it distracting and noisy. That raises the question: Is background music beneficial to learning, or is it a deterrent to learning?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not that simple. A few significant studies aiming to analyze the relationship between background music and learning outcomes have revealed varied results.

While some studies found no effect of background music on learning, other studies have revealed that background music can have a positive impact and a negative impact on learning.

The influence of background music on verbal memory and visuospatial concepts

A study was conducted on the influence of consistent background music on verbal memory and visuospatial (relating to visual perception and spatial relationships to objects). The study tested short-term memory (immediate recall) and long-term memory (testing memory after a 43-hour delay). The results were as follows:

Experiment 1: The effect of background music on verbal memory

 Immediate recall43-hour-delayed test
Effect of background musicNo benefit or decrease in the recall of unrelated wordsNo benefit or decrease in the recall of unrelated words

Experiment 2: The effect of background music on visuospatial memory

 Immediate Recall3-hour-delayed test
Effect of background musicImpairs immediate recall of visuospatial informationImpairs long-term memory of visuospatial information

The study concluded that when two or more tasks rely on the same brain hemisphere, they compete for a limited set of resources. So, background music could impair visuospatial memory more than it would verbal memory.

The influence of classical music and music with lyrics on learning

According to the University of Phoenix, background music with lyrics can distract the learner from reading, studying, and writing. The brain has to process the lyrics of the music as well as the words that are being learned, read, or studied. In short, the brain finds it hard to deal with both these tasks simultaneously.

A British study on 58 students revealed that verbal test scores suffered with and without music. However, in the diagrammatic test, students who listened to instrumental and vocal music did much better than those who studied in a silent environment. Students who listened to music with lyrics did better in the numerical test than those who studied in silence.

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In the early 1990s, Dr. Gordon Shaw reported that his study revealed that classical music could increase a student’s IQ level. This was known as the Mozart Effect. This led to the development of unique toys that incorporated classical music for children. Pregnant women would place headphones over their bellies, hoping the music would increase their unborn children’s IQ.  Since then, the Mozart Effect has been found to be misleading.

What is closer to the truth is that music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes happiness and a positive mood. According to studies, happiness and positivity can help people to solve problems and complete tasks better.

The influence of background music on children with learning disabilities

Research by Dr. Anne Savan has shown that background music can help students with special educational needs. Specific musical properties can improve students’ coordination skills with behavioral and emotional difficulties, help reduce frustration, and reduce aggressive or disruptive behavior.

Context-dependent learning

People can recall information better when tested in the same environment that they initially learned. So, students who listen to music while studying can do well when tested on the information they learned if they can perform the test while listening to music. This could also mean that students who listen to music when they study can find it challenging to recall information during a test if tested in a silent classroom.

The best types of music for types of learning

Thomas et al. (2011) revealed that the characteristics of music influenced learning outcomes. While soft but fast music had positive outcomes, loud fast music, loud slow music, and soft slow music did not benefit learning.

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Background music can have a positive impact on learning. However, background music is more suited to certain types of learning than others. For example, numerical and diagrammatic learning can benefit from background music. The background music must also be of the right tempo and mode to evoke the mood and natural desire to learn. Fast but soft music is the best type of music for learning. Instrumental music is better than music with lyrics.

Clearly, there are different opinions on the influence of background music on learning. Should you listen to music when learning? If you find music a distraction, then it’s best to study in silence. However, if you find that music relaxes you, then try listening to instrumental background music rather than music with vocals. It all comes down to your personal preference and what works for you at the end of the day. Create a playlist in advance so that you are not fumbling around to find songs while you are studying. Keep the playlist no more than 45 to 50 minutes. That way, you can remember to take a break when it stops playing. Finally, ensure the background music is in the background – listen to it at a moderate volume.

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