Kathryn Wagner, Leann Ishcomer, Anna Nizzari, Rachel Leah Kraus, and Nissa Menz


Many students prefer to listen to music while studying because they believe it helps them to focus on their work. Others feel that music is a distraction. The way in which a student chooses to study determines how well the do in school. Researches who have studied the effects of music on reading comprehension have found the following:

*Martin (1988) found that subjects' test scores increased slightly in the presence of instrumental background music than with lyrical music or no music.

*Henderson (1945) found that participants who listened to popular music while taking a mathematics and verbal comprehension exam had lower scores than the participants who listened to only classical music or no music. His study suggests that the effect of music on comprehension depends upon the complexity of the reading passage and the type of music.

*In 1989 Kiger found students scored highest on comprehension exams with low information load music (soft with a slow tempo, repetitive rhythm, and no lyrics) than with high information load music (non-repetitive, quick, upbeat lyrics) or no music.

We used the Flesch Readability Scale to analyze the difficulty of our two reading passages. This method assigns a 'grade level' to the text so that it corresponds with an appropriate age group.


The experimenters hypothesized that students would score highest on the multiple-choice exam while in the presence of instrumental music. Students would score lowest on the exam when tested in the presence of lyrical music. Furthermore, students would score higher on the easy reading passage than on the difficult reading passage. We hoped to find an interaction effect between the two independent variables. We hypothesized that the students in the easy reading, instrumental music condition would score the highest, and students in the hard reading, lyrical condition would score the lowest on the multiple-choice exam.


Fifty-six Mount Holyoke College female students between the ages of 17-23 participated in our study.


PROCEDURE * Participants entered the test room, which consisted of a table, a chair, and a proctor (one of the experimenters). The participant was then asked to read the directions and sign a consent form. When the direction sheet was reviewed and the consent form was signed, the proctor then removed these materials and placed a reading packet (consisting of the reading passage and the test) face down in front of the participant.

* The participants were randomly assigned to one of six music and reading conditions. These conditions were a combination of two reading levels and three music conditions.

* The reading passage was either Sea Stars, an entry from a college thesis or Starfish, an entry from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The experimenters manipulated these two passages so that they were similar in content, but differed in reading ease.

* When the proctor told the participant to begin, the participant turned over the reading selection and began reading the passage to the best of her ability. The proctor subjected the participant to one of three music conditions (instrumental music, lyrical music, or no music) while the participant completed the reading passage and the test. If music was present in the experiment, it was either the instrumental version of "Birdland" by Heavy Weather or the vocal version of the same song by Manhattan Transfer.

* The participant read the passage straight through without pausing or returning to a previous paragraph to re-read the material. Once the passage was completed, the participant turned over the reading packet and began the test. The participant also answered all questions (in the order in which they appeared) as quickly as possible.

Once the test was completed, the participant flipped the test face down. This was a signal to the proctor that the reading packet and questionnaire have been completed. The participant had an unlimited amount of time to complete both the reading selection and the questionnaire. The proctor removed the reading passage and questionnaire and debriefed the participant with the aid of a debriefing sheet. The participant was thanked for her time.


There was a significant main effect for type of music F (2,50) = 6.68, Mse = 2.62, p<.05. Post Hoc tests revealed that people in the instrumental music group scored higher on a multiple-choice test (M=8.26, SD=1.69) than the people in the no music/control group (M= 6.33,SD=1.53). There were no significant differences between the control and lyrical groups. Even though subjects in the control group scored slightly lower (M=7.00, SD=1.60) than the lyrical group, this difference was not significant. Subjects in the instrumental group versus the lyrical group scored slightly higher but this difference was also not significant.

There was no significant main effect for type of reading F(1,50)=2.42, MSe= 2.62, p>.05. People who were in the easy reading group scored slightly higher (M=7.54,SD=.31) than those in the difficult group (M= 6.86, SD=.31) but the differences were not significant. There was no significant interaction for music and reading ease F(2,50)=.068, MSe=2.62, p>.05. (See Table 1.)



We failed to reject our main null hypothesis—that music effects reading comprehension—because there is no significant interaction F(2,50)=.068, Mse=2.62, p>.05). There was a main effect for type of music. People in the instrumental group scored significantly higher (M=8.26, SD=1.69) than people in the no music group (M=6.33, SD=1.53). There was no main effect between the difficult and easy reading passages.

The results of our study relate to past research conducted by Martin (1988) who found that subjects’ test scores increased slightly in the presence of instrumental background music than with lyrical or no music. Similar to Kiger (1989), we also found a main effect for music—subjects’ scores were higher in the instrumental music condition than no music condition (p>.05).

Reasons for Lack of Significant Interaction

*Our study was a 2 by 3 independent groups design. Each subject was only exposed to one of our six conditions. If we had done a repeated measures design we could have tested the subjects in all of the music conditions over a three week period (subjects tested once a week for three weeks). Each subject would read a different reading passage each week but the reading passages would have the same readability scale. Each reading passage would be paired with one of the three music conditions and we could see how their scores varied in each condition.

*The Flesch Readability Scale may not have been the best way to analyze the two reading passages. Our reading passages differed in the Flesch Readability Scale by 27.6 points; the easier passage was 46.7 and the harder passage was 74.3. Perhaps if we had a greater difference between the passages we would have found a main effect for type of reading.

*Finally, there are individual differences to consider. Many of our subjects commented that they did not study with music. If a subject usually studied with music it may have been easier for them to concentrate on the task as opposed to a subject who did not normally listen to music.

* Other individual differences: Many of our subjects who were not biology majors commented that the multiple- choice exam was too specific. Other subjects, mostly biology majors, said they already knew the answers on the exam from past knowledge. In the future, we would want to pick a topic that is more obscure to college students—such as the invention of VCRs or dog-sled races in Alaska.