Music for work or music for distraction?

Towards the end of each summer term, my head teacher conducts 1:1 chats with all members of staff in the school. These chats are very informal, and are just opportunities to review the year, what’s worked, what maybe hasn’t worked and the start looking to the future. Prior to my meeting, I’d been asked to take charge of mathematics in the school, alongside running expressive arts; I’ve always had a strong interest in maths so this was a great opportunity for me. Using the connections I would have between maths and the expressive arts, I proposed a study around whether or not different genres of music affect performance in low stakes maths tests in pupils from year 3 to 6 (ages 7 – 11). As a school, we have been listening to a range of composers and artists during the last 12 months, however the situation of listening to music has been at the discretion of the class teachers. Some would play music during lessons, others would find spare slots throughout the week to share music with their classes. There were no hard and fast rules. I wanted to combine the two and see if actually it would have any impact at all on performance in maths. My head teacher was interested, and so has allowed me to proceed with my study.

My starting points were obvious – I needed to research the research that had already been done around music & sound and impacts on productivity. There has already been extensive research done in terms of listening to music, noisy environments etc. and their impacts on work and study.

This article in The Guardian (2018) discusses findings by Nick Perham and Harriet Currie (2014) from the applied psychology department of Cardiff Metropolitan University, and sheds a great deal of light on the negative impacts music can have on study, alongside other issues such as cognitive overload when trying to process multiple streams of information. Yet, when you actually speak to people, they will still tell you that they listen to music (and other sources of work accompaniment: TV, podcasts, radio, etc…) and claim that it helps them to work. But we must be careful in using the word “work” because there are lots of different ways that word can be interpreted. In the case of my study, I will be looking at “thinking” tasks; tasks which require you to actually call upon a range of different learnt strategies to solve a question.

In the case of a poll I ran on Twitter, what people told me was they would choose their work accompaniment based on the type of task they were doing. What I found almost straight away was that non-thinking tasks (such as house work, tidying and sorting a classroom for example) had people listening to more upbeat, louder genres of music, whilst the thinking tasks (writing, researching, analysing data) had people listening to more relaxed genres, or even nothing at all. The people who responded to the poll were incredibly specific, which will be of great use to me later on! The clearest piece of information which was confirmed to me was that many people required music to not have lyrics as they found them distracting (something which has been written about and discussed multiple times already). You can view the poll and read the thread here:

On his blog here, Daniel Willingham (2018) discusses the meta-analysis of data collected from studies related to listening to music and reading comprehension. Although the data suggests potentially a negative impact on reading comprehension, Willingham takes a more human approach to the data by adding in:

Some of my students say they like music playing in the background because it makes them less anxious. It could be that a laboratory situation (with no stakes) means these students aren’t anxious (and hence show little cost when the music is off) but would have a harder time reading without music when they are studying. In other words, the laboratory situation may underestimate the frequency that music provides a benefit for a subset of students.

Willingham, D. (2018)

I believe this is something which is going to be key to much of my study. Music is not simply a tool, a thing which can be rolled out when needed. Everybody has different preferences when it comes to music, and everybody has a different response to different genres. If everyone is an individual, what impact will blanket playing music to a whole class of pupils have?

In a recent study by Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello (2019) they concluded that:

(a) music generally impaired complex task performance, (b) complex music facilitated simple task performance, and (c) preference for external stimulation moderated these effects. Therefore, the data suggest that music’s effects on task performance depend on the music, the task, and the performer. 

Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019).

These findings fit in with what people are already telling me, that you can’t have a “one size fits all” approach due to the wide range of variables involved in why people listen to music whilst working in the first place.

I am still very much at the beginning of my study, and I am well aware that many studies into music and productivity have been conducted. However, using my own knowledge and experiences of music, alongside what I’ve already been shown by others here, I am already starting to form an opinion of where the study will lead, but am intrigued to see if my direction of thought is correct, or not! Once I have begun writing up the main areas of the study, I will share a link to the document for perusal.

As always, any thoughts or comments are greatly welcomed.


Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019). More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 25(3), 431-444.

Willingham, D. “Should Students Listen to Background Music While They Read?” (9.17.2018)

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