Can Listening to Music Help You Study?

Can Listening to Music Help You Study?
Feature photo via Tulane Public Relations, CC

For a long time, there’s been some debate about whether or not listening to music while you study is beneficial or detrimental. Students who believe that listening to music has a positive effect on their schoolwork point to a couple different reasons, the main reason being that listening to music improves their memory and focus. In an effort to determine whether or not these claims are true, studies have been performed to determine music’s effect on cognitive ability. Unfortunately, a clear scientific agreement hasn’t been found.

Research & Studies

While some research shows that listening to music in the background does increase cognitive processes, like attention or memory, a definitive answer about whether or not this increase in cognitive processes translates to improved academic performance has yet to be determined.

One possible reason that the research and the studies don’t exactly align stems from the different kinds of music a student might listen to while they study. One factor considered by scientists is whether or not music with vocals have different effects than instrumental music. The idea that music is beneficial to a person’s cognitive abilities is generally referred to as “The Mozart Effect”, but scientists note that most students probably aren’t listening to Mozart. Most likely, they’re listening to contemporary pop music. Due to the fact that pop music tends to contain vocals and upbeat tempos, scientists believe that it’s considerably more distracting to students. The experiments performed tried to take these factors into account.

Steady & Changing State

One study presented students with a few different scenarios. The first was a quiet environment. The second was called the “steady state,” which meant that a single word was repeated throughout the test. The third was called “changing state,” and included a variety of words played randomly. Next, music that the students liked was played during the test. The students were allowed to bring music, with the only requirement being that the music they brought must contain vocals. Finally, music was played for the students that they did not like.

The scientists running the study expected the changing state to result in the worst performance among students because it most closely resembled a kind of distraction similar to someone talking while they’re studying. Surprisingly, the researchers found no significant difference between test scores with changing state, music the students disliked, and music the students liked. From this, the researchers determined that whether or not the students liked the music, it was just as distracting as having someone talk to them while they study. The scores were much higher for tests taken in silence and during the steady state. When questioned, the students reported that they felt better during the test when the music they liked was being played, but found it distracting nonetheless.

Distraction Varies by Students

Though the results of that study seem to indicate that listening to music while studying has a more negative affect than positive, results from another study say something different. This follow-up study, which was conducted similarly, reaffirmed the results that music tended to be a distraction, but demonstrated that the level of distraction showed significant variation between students. In other words, the distracting effect of music on performance might affect some students more than others. In the future, more research will be done to determine the whether or not tempo, genre, or students’ level of tolerance for distraction make a meaningful difference.

Stress Reduction

Another beneficial reason to listen to music while studying is that music helps reduce depression and anxiety. It’s generally accepted that too much stress or anxiety before a test can significantly impair performance, so it seems logical that anything that reduces stress before a test can be shown to have its benefits.

There’s still a fair amount of research that needs to be done before people can say with certainty whether or not listening to music can help students study. If you like to listen to music while you study, and don’t feel like it’s too much of a distraction, then you should continue to do what makes you happiest.  


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