Does listening to music while working affect performance?


Whether I’m driving with the windows down on a summer day, walking through campus on my way to a lecture, or getting some exercise at the gym, it’s a safe assumption that I’m doing so while also listening to music. Music has been a part of my daily life for as long as I can remember and I’ve always felt that nearly every activity can be made more enjoyable if it’s done with some background music; studying for exams is of no exception. However, after reading an article online that listed various “Studying Do’s & Do Not’s” (with music considered a “Do Not”) I wondered, have I been going about my exam preparation all wrong? Because listening to music while doing schoolwork had been a part of my study routine for such a long time, I’d never even considered that the tunes I believed were keeping me engaged were actually distracting me from working diligently, and thus negatively impacting my academic performance. After doing a little more research and finding sources that both advocated for and warned against listening to music while studying, I was determined to find out, does listening to music while working affect performance? In my search for an answer, I considered my null hypothesis to be “Listening to music while working has no impact on task performance”, meaning that my alternative hypothesis would be “Listening to music while working on something does impact how a person performs”.

In 2008, researchers conducted a study in which 32 college students were divided into three groups before being asked to complete an attention test. The first group of students listened to background music for the entirety of their ten minute testing period (Group A). Another group of students took the exam in silence (Group B), while the last group listened to music until ten minutes before beginning their test, and then also tested in silence (Group C). After analyzing the results of each group’s attention tests, the researchers concluded that the students who listened to music prior to starting their exams (Group C) scored higher in attentiveness then those who took the exam in silence, while the scores of individuals who listened to background music throughout the test varied more so than any other group. Although listening to music during the test resulted in Group A’s test scores fluctuating the most from member to member, it should be noted that all three of the tested conditions yielded differing test scores amongst members of the same group. Essentially, the group that was asked to listen to music throughout their testing period was clearly the group that had the hardest time being attentive, but overall each of the 32 subjects reacted differently to the condition they were tested under. These results support the idea that listening to music while working can negatively affect performance, but they also show that everyone is affected differently by each testing condition (some perform better with background music than with silence while others perform in just the opposite manner.)

While the study from above did produce evidence supporting my alternative hypothesis (background music as a [negative] influence on performance), I recognized that the music people would normally listen while working is not predetermined but rather based on personal preference. Because of this, I wondered if certain genres of music could have more of an impactful on performance than other types of music. While searching for an answer to this question, I came across a Taiwanese study from 2009 where 133 university students were each given a reading comprehension test. Similar to the last study I analyzed, some of these students completed their exams in silence, some took the exam with classical music playing in the background and the other students listened to hip hop during the test. The experiment’s results showed that students listening to a higher intensity genre of music (rap, rock n roll, EDM) were distracted much more easily and as a result preformed visibly worse than those who listened to either a softer genre of music or no music at all.

Based on what I have gathered through my research and analyzation of multiple studies, I can confidently say that listening to music while studying does have an impact on performance (essentially confirming my alternative hypothesis and disproving my null hypothesis). With that being said, it’s not a guarantee that this impact on performance has to be negative. The idea that became most clear to me while observing music’s effect on task performance was that everyone reacts differently to the different stimuli the experience whilst working. For some, even gentle background music is enough to completely distract them from the task at hand, while others may even perform better on a job or test with music blaring through a nearby speaker. All in all it’s clear that music can affect an individual’s ability to work, but how a person is affected basically comes down to personal preference.


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3 thoughts on “Does listening to music while working affect performance?

  1. John Rutledge

    Just from personal experience I know that this is true. I almost listen to music when I study, and it helps me focus more. But I haven’t tried studying without music in a number off years.
    It turns out that listening to music while reading or writing can negatively effect your performance. But when your doing something like math, your not using the language part of your brain, so it actually doesn’t effect your performance for math.

  2. Madelyn Erin Peikin

    This post was very interesting. I used to listen to music while studying all of the time because i absolutely love music. I love it so much that I felt like I had to listen to it while studying– it was like i couldn’t be without it. And I am still just as passionate about music today. I love it and I am constantly listening. But I have personally found that it really prevents me from focusing. Like you said, it doesn’t have to be negative– but for myself, personally, I have found that it is. I get caught up in whatever the lyrics are to the song instead of the actual material i am learning. Although music does not help me, I have actually found that listening to “white noise” helps me a lot. I know it is a lot more dull than actual music. but i get easily distracted by things around me, and it prevents those distractions. I did some research and found that white noise can improve memory. So maybe if you want to give it a try, go for it! Here is a link to the research I found:
    And here is a link to the actual white noise I listen to:
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Alexander J Pulice

    I’m personally part of the crowd that can’t listen to music when I study, it just distracts me. You made convincing arguments in your post, but I’m concerned that the 2 studies you reference use too small of sample sizes. 32 and 133 people is a very small sample size to go with. Again I guess it might be hard to find studies that account for 3rd variables, and are randomly assigned. When I googled “study music” this was the top result. I wonder if different music genres also should be controlled for, cause wow some music is very trippy

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