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“Background Music Can Impair Performance, Cites New Study”


A new study find that listening to music while performing a task can impair cognitive ability.

Researchers divided participants into three groups — one listening to music they liked, one to music they didn’t like, and one with no music:

The most accurate recall occurred when participants performed the task in the quieter, steady-state environments. Thus listening to music, regardless of whether people liked or disliked it, impaired their concurrent performance.

One of the study’s authors concluded:

“Most people listen to music at the same time as, rather than prior to performing a task. To reduce the negative effects of background music when recalling information in order one should either perform the task in quiet or only listen to music prior to performing the task.”

This reflects my experience in the classroom (and my own personal experience). I use music a lot with English Language Learners as parts of lessons, and use music in lessons with our mainstream English classes when studying Bob Marley and, also, New Orleans. But they are always specific parts of lessons. Any time I acquiesce to student pleas to let them listen to those music examples outside of those specific lessons — for example, if they are working on a group project or during silent reading, it becomes an obvious distraction and I usually turn it off relatively quickly.

However, there is an important caveat — I have found that a few students who face particular challenges actually work better if they are listening to their own mp3 player at times, and have made individual agreements to let students sometimes use them.

Several years ago, when I was teaching a particularly challenging class, having students close their eyes for a couple of minutes after lunch and listen to soothing music also worked well as a calming influence. But they did not have to perform any task other than calming down, and the study does point out that music can “very positive effect on our general mental health” in that kind of situation.

What has been your experience with music in the classroom?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Hmm – interesting. I wonder how this ties in with Suggestopedia?

  2. Interesting study – might affect my classroom. I generally don’t allow students to listen to personal devices, as they end up spending time browsing, and because I don’t believe that in a language based class it helps to have one set of words in your ears, other words before your eyes, and other words that you’re trying to generate in response. The exception is when I have a moderate noise level in the classroom due to group discussions and one student who, for some legitimate reason, is not engaged in those discussions but finds the noise bothersome. However, I have put on music from time to time to reinforce or enhance a lesson. (I also have some lessons that are music based, but I’ll leave those aside for now). Sometimes I’ll play some music that relates to literature or historical time periods, so my students have heard some Robert Johnson blues in the background, listened to a little Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo connecting to South Africa, etc. In these situations, students are not usually expected to study something new, or absorb anything that will necessitate later recall, but still, I’ll look at this study more closely.

  3. For two years, I played music in my classroom for our morning routine, work time and in between for breaks. What I found was that depending on the type of music I played, my students moods and work behaviors were altered. If the music was soft and relaxing, there was no change. If it had a slight upbeat tempo, the noise level went up but students seemed to work at a good pace. If the music was too energetic though, the students got distracted and would start to dance and sing along. My first year with music, I played a lot more than I did my second year and did notice an increase in student concentration when I was not playing music.

    I do think it can become a distraction for kids so it is important to decide what the purpose of the music is and when we then should play it. This year, I plan on playing energetic music for my morning routine to get the kids ready for the day and wake them up. After lunch and recess I will also be cranking the volume, but I will not be playing any during work-time. It does seem to distract and irritate some, so I would rather not run the risk.

  4. I have always thought it difficult to study while lietening to music or watchin t.v. Other people however claim that it helps them work. As far as my classroom is concerned, I use music if it pertains to the particular activity/lesson. I find that background music can be distracting to students expecially those with attention problems! I like to limit the amount of distraction as much as possible in order to help the student focus.

  5. I have been struggling and conversing about this very issue for many years now. I believe I am a person that gets distracted by silence. I need a low level sound to drown out the minutia that exists in an environment. Outside of that I have ALWAYS had music in my science class. I just can’t stand it not being there. Now, when it is assessment time (formative or summative) the music is off. So I guess I’m playing by the rules in that respect. I like what Pernille said earlier when she spoke about the mood being altered by the pacing of the music. I keep a fast pace music when working on experiments, no music during direct instruction and a slow pace music if we are doing a multi step process. Maybe I’m doing this right, maybe I’m not. What do you think?

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