Thursday, March 15, 2018

Should you listen to music while studying? No... here's why

There are those who extoll the Mozart Effect, I know of one who extolled the virtues of playing Mozart to her children when they were very young and when they were learning. This, she claimed, had been proved scientifically to improve IQ and their ability to retain knowledge. Remarkably, she extended her claim to the foetus.
This baloney was sparked off by a paper in Nature by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky (1993), which showed a small improvement in spatial reasoning score (very specific), the effect lasted no longer than 15 minutes, then disappeared. The theory also disappeared, as several follow up studies could not replicate the effect. Rauscher herself, disclaimed the idea, saying that they had made no claim linking the playing of Mozart to intelligence. Chabris and Steele in a meta-studies paper in 1999 put the nail in the coffin by showing that such effects are merely the result of short-term and temporary ‘enjoyment arousal'.
But education can never resist a fad and there's always someone in education who can't let a bandwagon pass  in this case Don Campbell, who published The Mozart Effect (1997) and The Mozart Effect for Children. These books are, quite simply, bogus. His claims bear no resemblance to the actual research and, if you have this idea floating around in your brain, it’s largely down to him trade-marking the effect, then publishing these books, that were then taken up by lazy ill-informed journalists. This is how it ended up in the minds of so many parents and teachers. It was even funded and applied in some states in the US, notably Georgia and Florida.
Music in general
On the general proposition, that listening to music helps one learn, we have to be as equally careful. There is a large and complex literature on this subject, testing the effect of music on various cognitive phenomena and there is some evidence that it improves mood, even motivation, but one must be careful when it comes to actual learning.
In this interesting study, silence is used as a control, along with the two major components in popular music - music and lyrics. Perham and Currie (2014) created four groups:
Music without lyrics
Music with lyrics they liked
Music with lyrics they did not like
The sample (30) was small, and I'd like to see this replicated with a larger group but the results were interesting:
Revising in silence was signifiantly better than revising while listening to music with yrics (liked or disliked)
'Silence' and 'music with no lyrics'
Revising to 'music without lyrics' was produced better scores than revising to 'music with lyrics'
Revising in 'silence' group could preict olearning outcomes better than other groups
Music in online learning
Moreno and Mayer (2000) tried e-learning with the following groups: 
Learning with music
Learning with sounds

When retention and transfer were tested the groups with ‘music’ performed worse than those without music. This is a well known phenomenon where cogntitive overload inhibits learning.

It's to do with the overloading of working memory, especially with spoken words. One quick experiment you can do with your kids, or students, is to take a random page from a book on a subject they are unfamiliar with. Now tell them to read it in silence. Now choose another page and ask them to read it while repeating the word ‘boing-boing’ over and over. They will be unable to meaningfully learn from the text. The reason is the overloading of working memory, the phonological loop to be exact. Music takes up valuable bandwidth, therefore inhibits learning.

It may be devilishly difficult to convince your offspring that music is bad when they’re studying but when faced with a 60% differential it may be worth telling them about this study. There is lots of bad advice around study techniques that focus on superficial, low retention study methods and ignore attention, effort, retrieval and deliberate practice. No doubt some wag will tell us that music is good for those with an auditory learning style... that's also bullshit.

1 comment:

TonyParkin said...

"There is a large and complex literature on this subject, testing the effect of music on various cognitive phenomena and there is some evidence that it improves mood, even motivation, but one must be careful when it comes to actual learning".

I know this to be true, and I also know I haven't studied this to any depth, so am wary of making claims, merely observations. I have noticed that my daughter uses music for revision in the way I did, too, when her age. Always lyric-free music, too, and at times of high stress during revision.

I suspect that our use of music was more about reducing anxiety and stress to a level where study becomes possible, rather than claiming cognitive enhancement of any kind. For me the calming cadences of Bach meant that I could actually continue to read my extensive revision notes within descending into a messy panic state that made learning nigh on impossible? Not a great claim for music... but one which i would advance as a positive. :D