Studying? You probably should turn off the music

12 February 2014

Above: Image © istockphoto/Wavebreak

Can you completely focus on tough math problems with the comforting voice of Justin Bieber in your ear? Or do you breeze through essay writing with the constant encouragement of Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Chris Brown? But when the time comes to take a test or an exam, does your mind go blank and you completely forget all the facts and figures you spent hours studying?

On the one hand, the idea that listening to music while studying can have negative effects on test performance is supported by Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. On the other hand, a recent study by researchers in Wales has shown a link between listening to music while studying and performing poorly on tests.

Fast fact: The Nobel Prize Ivan Pavlov received in 1904 was for his research on the human digestive system, not on dogs and classical conditioning.You might have heard the expression “Pavlovian response” or “Pavlovian conditioning”. They refer to the work and theories of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), a pioneering Russian psychologist and Nobel laureate in medicine.

By experimenting on dogs, Pavlov showed how animals can be conditioned (trained) to automatically react to certain stimuli (signals) from the environment.

Pavlov began his experiments after noticing that when his dogs saw their food, they immediately started drooling. Salivating when you see food is a natural reflex that increases the number of enzymes in your mouth, which help you digestion starches and fats. This is referred to as an unconditioned response (UR). The food is referred to as an unconditioned stimulus (US). The US and UR occur naturally with no training.

Classical conditioning came into play when Pavlov started ringing a bell before bringing out the dogs’ food. Over time, the dogs started drooling as soon as they heard the bell, before they even caught sight of the food! Pavlov described a response that is learned (salivating to the sound of a bell) as a conditioned response (CR). He called the stimulus that triggers a CR (the sound of the bell) a conditioned stimulus (CS).

Pavlov’s experiments may have important implications for how you study. Cues in your environment condition your mind and body. So if you’re used to studying with music, your brain learns to naturally focus on whatever you’re learning when music is playing. And since there’s no background music when you take a test, your brain may have a harder time focusing on the task at hand because it has learned to operate optimally when music is playing.

Fast fact: Classical conditioning techniques are used to treat patients with phobias, and sometimes even allergies!

Of course, along with the effects of classical conditioning, listening to music can also be just plain distracting. In this vein, Nick Perham, a researcher at Cardiff Metropolitan University, has studied the effects of listening to music while preforming cognitive tasks.

One of Perham’s experiments looked at serial recall, by measuring participants’ ability to recall a list of eight consonants in a specific order. Comparing results from five different sound environments, Perham found that participants performed best in quiet environments. He therefore recommends that, “to reduce the negative effects of background music when recalling information in order, one should…perform the task in quiet”.

Ultimately, there are at least two possible reasons why listening to music while studying is a bad idea. You may actually be training your brain to perform badly during tests, when music isn’t playing. And studying in a quiet environment will probably help you work more efficiently, especially if there is information you need to memorize. So even if you like their music, Justin, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Chris are not particularly good study buddies.


Classical Conditioning (Saul McLeod, Simply Psychology)

Some Practical Applications of Classical Conditioning (Yael Niv, Princeton University) ."

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (Lotta Fredholm,

Research proves that silence can be golden (Nick Perham, Cardiff Metropolitan University)


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