Can I listen to music while I work?

This week I met Lara, Holly and Melissa, three students in Year 8 who wanted me to let them listen to music whilst they revised for their exams. They wrote me a very polite letter, and they’d even discussed it with their classmates to gather a petition. They felt that listening to music when they were working helped them relax, focus, and shut out distractions. So, they asked, would I relax the rules and let them have their headphones in?


Will listening to music help us concentrate?

There’s been some quite interesting research in this area. Scientists have studied how listening to music can change our performance in different types of tasks. Under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse.

One study from America looked at how listening to music had an impact on surgeons’ performance in the operating theatre. This study found that listening to music made them more relaxed and they performed with more accuracy, especially if it was music they liked.

Another study, by British researcher Nick Perham, found that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your motivation — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks like learning new material or trying to memorise information.

This is a very important distinction. Surgeons in operating theatres are performing operations that they have practised many times before, and therefore they are performing things they have already learned. It’s the same principle as the research that found that music can make rote or routine tasks (like folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. Music can lift us when we’re doing things that don’t require us to think too hard about them, or things that we have practised many times before.


Listening to music interferes with concentration when we’re trying to read or retain information, and makes us less effective learners

That’s not what lessons and revision are about however. Learning is what Nick Perham would call a “cognitively demanding task.” In one of his more recent studies, Perham says, he found that reading while listening to music, especially music with lyrics, impairs comprehension.

“You’ve got…information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got…information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.”

What basically happens is that your brain will switch between the music and what you’re trying to learn or revise, and that switching distracts you from the learning process. If you’re going to be an effective learner, your brain needs to focus fully on what you are trying to learn. No distractions.

So, sorry Lara, Holly, Melissa and friends: the rule stays! If you’re learning or revising – turn the music off.


4 thoughts on “Can I listen to music while I work?

  1. Pingback: Can I listen to music while I work? | Duncanrig Professional Development

  2. As a student who prefers to listen to music whilst revising, I find this quite an interesting read. What about music that does not have any lyrics? The brain surely then does not have as much to ‘latch onto’ to affect concentration. I admit that it is difficult to argue with the studies that suggest music ‘impairs comprehension’, but I personally find that it lifts my mood and motivation to the point that I end up doing work that I would not otherwise have the stamina to do. I feel that this increase in work done outweighs the alleged loss in productivity due to reduced comprehension!


  3. Pingback: What have I learned? | The Headteacher's Blog

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