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Whether Music Distracts Students or Helps Them

My thoughts about the term paper began with The Invisible Gorilla reading by Chabris and Simon (2010) assigned this week. The authors in the article report various other researchers’ studies and their experimental findings on attention, perception, intuition, memory, etc. (Chabris & Simons, 2010). The author focuses on how sometimes we are looking right at things but fail to notice them. Last week, I was packaging orders at the restaurant where I work part-time, and I had a big order come up on the screen which required at least two bags to fit in all the food, so as I was packing the food items, the pick-up person arrived, and I told him, it is ready to go, just needs a seal. And I did the same and handed him the two bags. Later, I realized that I forgot to put the two boxes, for which I mainly took out the second bag. It just surprised me as I wondered, how could that happen? Because they were right in front of me and I knew that they would go in the second bag. That just made me wonder about the concept of selective attention, the limited ability of a person to pay attention to all the available information in our environment based on urgency (Ploog, 2013).

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I believed that as my mind was busy with all the orders lined up that needed to be packed and the big order that I was loading at that very moment, being interrupted by the pick-up person distracted me, and therefore I ended up making a mistake. Further, I was particularly interested in the idea that distraction can lead to a loss of ability to focus and cause errors when performing a complicated task. Later, it led me to think that the primary problem of the students’ lack of attention while studying and later being unable to recall during the exams is listening to music while learning (Byron, 2019. Therefore, I began my research on how listening to music impacts students’ ability to study effectively.

I believe that listening to music while studying is a big distraction for me, coming back to the topic of selective attention, which states that we can only focus our complete attention on a specific task at hand based on priority to perform it most efficiently. I prefer to study in complete silence as it helps me focus on just the content that I am looking at, and only in a few hours, I can learn more material rather than if I study with music in the background because it feels like distractive noise. At Cardiff, the University of Wales Institute ran a study in which they tested 25 students’ (aged 18-25) ability to memorize and recall letters in five different sound conditions – silence, preferred music, not-preferred music voice persistently reciting the number three and voice delivering random one-digit numbers. Results of the study noted that students performed the worst in the condition with music playing whether or not it was their preferred type and also poorly in the situation where the voice repeatedly recited the number three, concluding that music can potentially reduce one’s cognitive capacities when trying to memorize material present in sequence as one can get distracted by the lyrics and notes of the music playing in the background. A lot of people believe that they are good at multitasking and prefer to listen to music while studying; however, research conducted by Joshua et al. (2001) in a stream of studies in which the students were asked to switch between complex tasks such as solving math problems, specifying geometric shapes, etc. showed that as the jobs got more challenging, students ended up wasting time due to switching and therefore, concluded that multitasking could reduce our efficiency up to 40% because of lack of focus (American Psychological Association, 2006).

Another study was conducted to test the effect of music distraction on reading efficiency. Fifty female students were divided into groups based on their psychological examination and reading test scores (Nelson-Denny reading test) and were tested under three categories – silence, classical music, and popular music. Results concluded that the popular music condition distracted a group of participants significantly when it came to the reading part; however, classical showed no distraction evidence. It was further suggested that music being or not destruction depends on how complicated the study material and the music are (Henderson et al., 1945). Other than that, a study conducted at the State College of Washington on 123 subjects in which the reading efficiency was tested through a customized true and false questionnaire based on the material studied showed that results favored the group that was not distracted by the music in background significantly and thus concluded that lack of focus caused due to music can affect students significantly especially when they are trying to learn material involving higher intellect (Fendrick, 1937).

However, it is not always the case that music serves as a distraction. Some studies have shown that music has numerous benefits when listened to while studying. University of Maryland Medical Centre suggested that music is an effective stress buster and should be listened to by healthy individuals and those with health conditions. It reduces blood pressure anxiety, maintains a steady heart rate, and improves mood (The Marketing Team, 2019). A study performed at Cambridge University suggested that listening to hip-hop music can help uplift one’s spirit and motivate the individual to better tackle the task at hand by improving the overall mood (The Marketing Team, 2019). In a Stanford study, researchers used the music composition from the 1800s and discovered that music engages the parts of the brain that are responsible for being attentive, making guesses, and memory and further revealed that music can benefit a student in categorizing information in an organized manner thus aiding in long term retention (Pallister, n.d.).

Stress and anxiety often appear in students, especially when they have problems with completing assignments, which causes even more tension. According to Matney (2017), the use of instrumental music can significantly reduce the level of anxiety in students compared to the extensively researched use of recorded music. The author explored the influence of the piano, strings, and marimba and found that all of these instrumentation types have a relatively similar positive impact on decreasing anxiety among students. Contrary to other studies, for example, the one by Joshua et al. (2001), Matney (2017) claimed that percussion instrumentation can be effective to help learners in concentrating on their tasks. This means that the literature is inconsistent, and further research is critical to investigate the role of instrumental music on students’ anxiety and, as a result, success in academic performance.

Although the above literature shows some negative effects of music on attention, the overall evidence is inconclusive. The recent study by Kiss and Linnell (2020) provides a new perspective on the relationships between music and attention. Namely, the authors conducted the study with 40 students, who were given a variation of the Psychomotor Vigilance Task to measure sustained attention. To ensure that students listen to their preferred music, it was offered to choose the playlists. Based on the analysis of such states as a distraction, mind-wandering, and task-focus, the authors found that preferred background music increased task-focus states, while it did not impact students’ external distraction rates (Kiss & Linnell, 2020). However, it should be stressed that this study explored only the performance of low-demanding sustained-attention tasks, which limits the findings and extent to which they can be generalized. Therefore, I specifically intend to argue that preferred background music can make a positive impact on attention in students compared to random background music that was used in the majority of the studies, indicating that it tends to distract students from tasks.

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Considering that the area of background music and attention is extensively researched in the previous studies, it seems to be beneficial to narrow the research focus and pay specific attention to how preferred background music impacts performing academic tasks. Namely, future studies should manipulate the difficulty of tasks being included, using it as a variable. This recommendation would allow exploring in more detail the attentional lapses, such as mind-wandering and distraction conditions. In this way, future research would take into account the views of many students who believe that music helps them in learning. Indeed, compared to a random musical background, preferred playlists can make a different impact, which should be discovered in future studies.


American Psychological Assocation. (2006). Multitasking: Switching costs. AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION.

Byron, T. (2019). Is it OK to listen to music while studying? University of Wollongong Australia.

Chabris, C., & Simon, D. (2010). the invisible gorilla And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceive Us. Harmony.

Fendrick, P. (1937). The influence of music distraction upon reading efficiency. The Journal of Educational Research, 31, 264-267.

Henderson, M. T., Crews, A., & Barlow, J. (1945). A study of the effect of music distraction on reading efficiency. Journal of Applied Psychology, 29(4), 313-317. 10.1037/h0056128

Kiss, L., & Linnell, K. J. (2020). The effect of preferred background music on task-focus in sustained attention. Psychological Research, 1-13.

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The Marketing Team. (2019). The Benefits of Studying with Music. Florida National University.

Matney, B. (2017). The effect of specific music instrumentation on anxiety reduction in university music students: A feasibility study. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 54, 47-55.

Pallister, C. (n.d.). Does music help you study? Make Anexam.

Ploog, B. O. (2013). Selective Attention. Springerlink.

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