Research suggests that listening to background music prior to task performance increases cognitive processes, such as attention and memory, through the mechanism of increasing arousal and positive mood. However, music preference has not been explored with regard to a more common and realistic scenario of concurrent music and cognition, namely the ‘irrelevant sound effect’ (ISE). To examine this, serial recall was tested under quiet, liked and disliked music sound conditions as well as steady-state (repetition of ‘3’) and changing-state speech (random digits 1–9). Results revealed performance to be poorer for both music conditions and the changing-state speech compared to quiet and steady-state speech conditions. The lack of difference between both music conditions suggests that preference does not affect serial recall performance. These findings are discussed within the music and cognition and auditory distraction literatures. Copyright © 2010 JohnWiley & Sons, Ltd.