Does Music Make Students Less Productive?

By Annie Murphy Paul, Time Magazine

[Michael’s Note: Your students, like mine, may often do homework while listening to music with lyrics. For those who claim they really can work to such music (and their achievement proves it), the question becomes: Is it possible they could accomplish more in less time if they used instrumental music instead?]

Does music distract you from the task at hand? That depends on the task. Research shows that under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse — sometimes dangerously so.

Absorbing and remembering new information is best done with the music off, suggests a 2010 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Participants’ performance suffered when music was played while they carried out the task as compared to when they completed the task in a quiet environment. Nick Perham, the British researcher who conducted the study, notes that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks.

Other findings: Classical or instrumental music enhances mental performance more than music with lyrics. Music can make rote or routine tasks (think folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. But when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.

Annie Murphy Paul also writes “The Brilliant Blog” & is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.

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