David Zax

A View from David Zax

Is Music on an E-Reader a Feature or a Bug?

Kobo announced that its Vox e-reader will come preloaded with the music service Rdio. But to what extent are music and reading in harmony?

  • November 17, 2011

In its recent post-mortem on Borders, BusinessWeek suggests that that chain’s lackluster e-reading strategy was one reason for its demise: “If you didn’t know Borders had an e-reader called Kobo, you’re not alone,” writes Ben Austen. But Kobo didn’t die along with Borders, which only owned an 11 percent stake in the independent company. In fact, just as Kindle Fires begin shipping all over the place, Kobo would like you to know that it’s alive and very well, thank you, and to that end has been releasing a steady pulse of news this week. A Japanese e-commerce firm plans to buy it for $315 million. An ad-supported “Kobo Touch with Offers” will have a price tag of under $100, Amazon-style.

But the bit of Kobo news I’d like to focus on is this: the company announced that its $199 Vox e-reader would be shipping with Rdio, a social music discovery and streaming app, preloaded. “By adding Rdio to the Kobo Vox, our subscribers can now easily extend their Rdio listening experience into their reading life, and it gives them yet another platform to access our service,” Drew Larner, Rdio’s CEO, said in a press release. “Reading and listening to music have always been preferred leisure activities and now customers can enjoy them together, seamlessly.”

That’s a statement I’d like to fact-check. How seamlessly can music and reading be enjoyed? I tend to find reading while listening to music impossible, like trying to drive while watching a movie. When I first started playing around with my Kindle, I nearly chuckled when I learned you could play music on the device. Who would ever use such a feature? Was it even a feature? If music impedes reading, might it be a bug?

I know, of course, that there are people out there who enjoy listening to music while reading. But I’ve always suspected that what those people are doing is, cognitively, something less than reading—something more like browsing. Can you really read and listen to music at the same time?

Forum-goers are of two minds about this. Some people claim it depends on what type of music you’re listening to. I’m in agreement with the last.fm user who says that songs without words make for better reading music than other kinds of music. I will occasionally indulge in a bit of classical while at the library; it’s no coincidence that among my most-played tracks in iTunes are Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” Here, try reading the rest of this post while listening to him, to see if it affects your comprehension.

Anecdotes are all well and good, but how about data? A number of studies over the years have examined how music affects reading comprehension. A 1975 study implies that habit is everything: “The more frequently students reported studying to music, the less music impaired their performance.” A 1989 study in Perceptual and Motor Skills neatly summarizes prior research, before reaching its own conclusion that comprehension is highest when reading occurs in silence. A 1999 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology concluded that introverts in particular have trouble processing information in the presence of pop music (stop listening to Lady Gaga while reading, shy people!). A 2002 study concludes, though, that for children 10 to 12, relaxing music can aid cognition, while “arousing, aggressive, and unpleasant” music will do the opposite. A more recent study finds interesting effects of the tempo vs. intensity of music: “reading comprehension was poorest in the fast/loud music condition and best in the fast/soft condition.”

It’s another case in which science, for the most part, bears out intuition. Listening to death metal while reading your organic chemistry textbook probably isn’t a good idea. Listening to a movement of a swift symphony, though, might just boost your comprehension over silence. So if you’re opting for the Kobo Vox and are desperate for that pr-loaded Rdio app to not go to waste, allow me to recommend your first album.

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