Research proves that silence can be golden 

05/08/2010 16:00 


THE majority of people enjoy the pleasurable accompaniment of background music when working, studying or carrying out everyday tasks.

Dr Nick Perham
 Dr Nick Perham  
Studies show that the music we choose to listen to actually helps improve our efficiency and performance levels when used in this way, but a new study has found that this is not always the case.

The latest research carried out at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) shows that music can interfere with short-term memory performance regardless of whether we like the music or not.

When students were played music while recalling a list of consonants in their presentation order, they remembered fewer items than when they performed the same task in a quiet environment. It was also found that musical preferences had no bearing on how much the volunteers were able to recall.

For example, whether they were played their favourite Lady Gaga songs or a track they disliked by thrash metal band Death Angel, recall was similar and still poorer than when it was in quiet.

Lead researcher Dr Nick Perham, a lecturer in Psychology at UWIC’s Cardiff School of Health Sciences, explained: “The poorer performance of the music and changing-state sounds are due to them containing lots of acoustical variation, the order of which impairs the ability to recall the order of items, via rehearsal, within the presented list. Other tasks and processes that also require the ability to retain order information in the short-term via rehearsal, such as mental arithmetic, may be similarly affected by their performance in the presence of changing-state, background environments.”

For this study, which has been published in academic journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, the researchers explored the ‘irrelevant sound effect’ by requiring participants to perform serial recall (recall a list of eight consonants in presentation order) in the presence of five sound environments – quiet, liked music (eg. Rhianna, Lady Gaga, Stranglers and Arcade Fire), disliked music (by Death Angel), changing-state (a sequence of random digits such as ‘4, 7, 1, 6’) and steady-state (‘3, 3, 3’).

Recall ability was approximately the same, and poorest, for the music and changing-state conditions and the most accurate recall occurred when participants performed the task in the quieter steady-state environments.

Dr Perham said: “Most people listen to music at the same time as, rather than prior to, performing a task but to reduce the negative effects of background music when recalling information in order, one should either perform the task in quiet or only listen to music prior to performing the task.”

Notes to Editors:

Nick Perham is a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC). He has published and presented widely on the effects of auditory distraction on short-term memory and general task performance. He can be reached for questions at

Picture caption:
Dr Nick Perham

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