We all know that listening to music makes life better.
And, we teachers all know teachers that listening to music while you study makes studying harder and less effective.
For instance, in this study, adults who read in silence scored more than 20% higher on a quiz about that reading passage than others who listened to music with lyrics.
Indeed. 20% higher. (You can read more about that study here.)
Even though we’ve seen this research finding many times, we might want a deeper understanding of this question.
For instance: are there particular points during reading that are particularly vulnerable to interference from music?
Answer #1: New Songs
To answer this question, researchers used eye-tracking technology to see how readers behaved with background music playing.
One answer that jumped out: the change from one song to the next interrupted fluent eye movements.
This finding, of course, makes intuitive sense.
When a new song comes on, we automatically perk up our ears. Even subliminally, we notice a change in our background circumstances. The attention we devote to that change makes it harder to attend to our reading.
The result: less fluent eye movements.
Professor Todd Rose (at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education) used to suggest that–if students insisted on listening to music–they should make a playlist of songs. Those songs should have no lyrics.
And, crucially, students should not press shuffle. They should, in other words, listen to those songs in the same order each time. Over time, students will habituate to those songs in that order, and be less distracted by the switch.
This research supports Rose’s suggestion.
Answer #2: Vocabulary
The second time that music particularly distracts readers: when they face an unusual word. As the authors poetically put it:
“An irrelevant auditory signal may impair sublexical processing of low-frequency words during first-pass reading.”
“An irrelevant auditory signal” means “music,” and “low-frequency words” means “difficult vocabulary.”
So, if you were listening to music while you read that paragraph you’d face particular difficulties. After all, in included several low-frequency words.
Based on this observation, I think we should worry more about homework that includes complex vocabulary–and, I’m guessing, even more so about homework that includes foreign-language vocabulary.
In other words: while listening to music is bad for reading comprehension, it’s especially bad for comprehension of passages with tricky vocab.
To Sum Up
We’ve always known that students make their cognitive lives harder when they listen to music during homework.
Now we have even more evidence showing when, and why.