Should We Use Background Music With Instruction? No.

Should We Use Background Music With Instruction? No.

Why We Should Not Use Background Music With Instruction

In a recent blog post, I discussed the reasons why we should not use background music with instruction. This started an interesting discussion on LinkedIn. More than a few people were adamant that they must include music. But what does the research say?

If you read my articles, you know I’m a fan of designing according what improves learning and training outcomes and not doing what harms outcomes. Research doesn’t always have concrete answers, but when it does, we should use them. (Research is science, so it grows, changes, and morphs.) And it has a lot of answers that L&D practitioners regularly ignore but shouldn’t.

This is my entire reason for writing the Make It Learnable series. Because of accelerating technological, demographic, and sociopolitical changes, the longevity of organizations is plummeting. To help our organizations survive, we must use the best training and learning tactics and get away from fads and folklore.


The general rationale for not using background music is that it increases harmful cognitive load. Cognitive load relates to mental processes (like perception, thinking, and organizing) used for thinking, learning, and working. Working memory needs to process new information but it has considerable constraints (in capacity for new material and holding time). John Sweller, a well-known researcher and writer on memory and cognitive load and other aspects of learning, reminds us we must design with how our mental processes work. If we don’t, people can’t learn. And learning quickly is a mandate for current organizational conditions.

There are two types of cognitive load: helpful and harmful. We call the harmful type extraneous cognitive load and, when we don’t reduce this type of cognitive load, we make it harder to learn. Here are some examples of extraneous (harmful) cognitive load:

Stop reading for a moment and think about why these items cause harmful cognitive load, given what I told you about working memory (Really! Try to answer the question before going ahead). Then look at my answer below.

Patti’s answer: The answer is that working memory has limited capacity. We must generally not use WM for non-essential items (such as unnecessary media and content) as it makes it harder to learn. Research shows that perception is tasked with picking out what is important because it cannot attend to everything. Unnecessary media and content make the task of selecting what is important harder and more effortful.

Here is the primary implication: Know what causes harmful cognitive load and remove it from instruction. This helps people use mental process to learn rather than struggle.

Specific Research On Background Music

Roxana Moreno and Richard Mayer, two prolific learning researchers, tested whether adding auditory sounds (background music or sounds) improved or harmed learning in multimedia instructional messages (animations on lightening and hydraulic braking). The results of their two studies showed that unnecessary sounds decrease learning. Both experiments had the animations with narrations and either added background music, sounds, both, or neither. On tests of remembering and ability to apply, the groups with added music and sounds performed far worse than groups not receiving music and sounds. Those receiving sounds only performed poorer on tests in one of the two experiments.

What this tells us is that added music hurts learning. Even very low-level music can cause problems. People performed significantly better when they studied animations without background music. The reason is clear: Music (even low-level music) adds harmful cognitive load. As the two authors wrote in their report, “auditory adjuncts can overload the learner's auditory working memory”. They said that this result is expected, given what we know about perception, memory, and other cognitive processes.

What kinds of music and sounds were Mayer and Moreno talking about? They were talking about, in their words, adding “bells and whistles like background music (such as an instrumental music loop) and sounds (such as blowing wind and crackling ice)”. Because they can detract from learning, Instructional Designers and others who build instruction should typically not use them.

According to Mayer and Moreno, we can further understand the reasons background music and sounds negatively affect learning through these research principles.

Principles Explanation
Entertainment Many expect to engage people by adding music and sound. Televisions studies with children show improved attention using visual and auditory techniques: sound effects, zooming, music, and so forth. But children’s attention while watching television is far different than adults watching instructional presentations. Children pay attention intermittently and the purpose of the sounds is to gain their attention, not to help them learn.

This situation is different than what need to do during adult instruction.

Coherence Coherence theory explains that the wrong kinds of content can overload working memory. We should remove all material that is not necessary to make the lesson understood. Unnecessary content of all types reduces mental processing capacity for what people need to do. People need all possible mental processing for understanding what they are learning and organizing it with what they already know. These are critical elements for learning and remembering.

The coherence principle explains that we should eliminate all non-essential information to minimize harmful demands on cognitive resources. I’ve said before that the “real” engagement is relevance (to participants’ lives and work). L&D practitioners try to improve engagement with irrelevant media, but it backfires. Instead, we should better understand peoples’ jobs and lives so we can build the most relevant instruction and support possible.

If you have questions, ask away. Or start a discussion on Twitter by posting to @pattishank and @elearnindustry. See you soon!