Listening to music while studying can overtax your cognitive resources

by Grace

Listening to music while studying can overtax your cognitive resources.  Hip-hop music can be particularly harmful.

Research offers little support for the idea that listening to music improves concentration, says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. In one of several small Taiwanese studies, listening to music with lyrics was linked to lower scores on tests of concentration in a study of 102 college students, published online earlier this year by the journal Work. In separate research, listening to hip-hop music was linked to a significant reduction in reading-test scores, based on a study of 133 adults published in 2010 in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

One solution is only listen to music that doesn’t grab your attention.

A third study of 89 students ages 19 to 28, led by researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, found that workers who either loved or hated music being played where they were working scored lowest on tests of attention, compared with workers who didn’t have strong feelings about the music or who worked in rooms without music. People naturally pay more attention to music they strongly like or dislike, hurting their ability to focus, the study says.

Instrumental music is better.

In the office, listening to music with lyrics while trying to read or write can distract employees by overtaxing verbal-processing regions of the brain, neuroscientists say.

The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center, must work harder to force itself not to process any strong verbal stimuli, such as catchy lyrics, that compete with the work you’re attempting, Dr. Desimone says. The more cognitive work required to screen out unwanted input, the fewer cognitive resources remain for the task at hand. And the longer you try to concentrate amid competing distractions, the worse your performance is likely to be. “Attention takes mental effort, and we can get mentally tired,” he says.

Students with attention issues should be particularly careful about studying while listening to their favorite tunes.  I’m sure I’m not the only parent fighting this battle during homework time.

“I have to listen to rock and roll on my iPod while I’m studying! It’s the only way I can focus!’”

While absolute quiet in itself can be distracting, the way to go might be to stick to instrumental music while studying.  Here’s a list compiled by Bright Futura, an online college newspaper:


You’ll also find a link to the sound of rain at the Bright Futura site.


2 Comments to “Listening to music while studying can overtax your cognitive resources”

  1. Not surprising. Kind of like trying to get productive work done in a cubicle environment?


  2. Yup. The quotes are actually from a WSJ article about the defensive use of headphones in cubicles.


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