Music and learning: Harmony or dissonance?
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Music and learning: Harmony or dissonance?

Lots of organizations today allow employees to listen to the music of their choice at work, and maybe yours is one of these. That’s probably fine most of the time, but it may not be so fine when you’re expecting your people to take in or reinforce new knowledge.

Wait a sec, you may be saying. Aren’t there studies that show listening to music actually HELPS people learn? Well, sort of. But not exactly.

‘Mozart effect’
The best-known scholarly work in this area posits what’s become known as the “Mozart effect,” where people who listened to the music of that Classical-era composer performed better on certain tasks than people who didn’t. This effect was popularized — and twisted — to say that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. But the authors of the original study protested that they never said that. What they did say was that listening to Mozart improved scores on what they called “spatio-temporal tasks” like paper folding and cutting, or arranging data in chronological order.

And now comes a recent study reporting a reverse effect: that listening to music, at least certain kinds of music, may in fact impede learning.

Different soundscapes
In this study, done at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales, researchers tested 25 people to see how well they recalled information in several different sound environments.

The subjects were given a list of eight consonants and asked to repeat them back in order in a quiet environment, while music was playing that they liked, and while music was playing that they disliked. They were also tested while a voice repeated the number three or spoke single-digit numbers randomly.

The study participants performed best with quiet or the repeating voice — what the researchers called a steady-state audio environment. Lead researcher Nick Perham explained that the more “acoustical variation” there was, the poorer the test results. And the music had lots of acoustical variation.

Jupiter vs. Figaro
Other experts in the field note, however, that the Cardiff research used music with lyrics, and several say that this makes a difference.

Listening for lyrics ties up parts of the brain that are also involved in the cognitive tasks of information acquisition and recall, whereas music without lyrics doesn’t. In other words, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony may be OK for listening-while-you-learn, while his opera “The Marriage of Figaro” isn’t!

And in a final note, or complication, researcher Perham adds that even if listening-while-you-learn does get in the way, listening to music you like BEFORE the learning exercise can actually help. Psychologists call this “enjoyment arousal.” In other words, agreeable music gets your brain perking and ready to learn.

Making it work
So, as a person tasked with ensuring that your employees get the most from their learning and training experiences, what should you do, exactly, about music?

Here’s a modest list of recommendations:

  • Encourage people to “rev up” for training sessions by listening to music they like.
  • Direct people to leave their iPods (etc.) in their desks during the actual training. (This may seem obvious, but these days…)
  • When people are expected to engage in reinforcement exercises — like quizzes or scenarios based on the original learning — suggest that if they do listen to music, they make it instrumental and/or something they’re unaccustomed to. Some musicologists say that familiar music is more distracting to the learner.

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