Music and Studying: Does It Help?

Many people listen to music, especially with headphones on to create their own private little world. But is it a good idea to study while listening to music? The answer: it depends.

There has been a lot of interest in this topic and quite a bit of relevant research. It depends on several factors: type of music, listening to it before/during studying, and the individual’s preferences.

What type of music do you like? If it has lyrics, then don’t listen to it while studying! Basically, listening to speech will impair the mind’s ability to comprehend what is being read or studied at the same time. Think of it like listening to two people talking at the same time; you will not comprehend one or the other very effectively. So lyrics are a definite no-no if you want to retain what you study.

In fact, studies have shown that listening to music you like disturbs your studying even more than listening to music you dislike. One study had three groups recall eight-item lists while in total silence, listening to liked music, and listening to disliked music.

The group in silence did significantly better than either of the other groups, and those listening to music they liked performed the worst of all three groups. So your favorite song may actually impair your cognitive abilities.

What about listening to the classics? Many people don’t enjoy classical music, such as Mozart, yet there is one theory that classical music can help you be smarter, albeit temporarily. In 1993, a researcher named Rauscher played a Mozart sonata (no lyrics, just instrumental music) to college students while having them perform a spatial temporal task. Those listening to the sonata did better on the task than those who did not, but the effect only lasted about 15 minutes.

Nevertheless, this short research blurb went viral quickly with headlines such as ‘Mozart makes you smart’ and suggestions by the media to play classical music to unborn babies to make them more intelligent. The ‘Mozart Effect’ was never intended by the researcher to extend as far as the media took it. The outcome of that research was simply that listening to music you like (it didn’t have to be Mozart) can be better than sitting in silence because it engages the brain. But studying engages the brain, so listening to music does not necessarily mean you will study more effectively.

Another interesting study suggests that listening to music before studying can enhance what is learned. Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, states that doing something enjoyable before beginning to study, such as listening to your favorite music, can have a positive effect. He emphasized that it is most important you do something you enjoy before studying, not necessarily even listening to music in particular. So pop those earphones in before hitting the books, then let silence reign for your study period. So if you are someone who loves listening to music, keep in mind that you have convinced yourself that listening to music while studying is beneficial. But you are wrong. Yes, that is what researchers have found.

People think that listening to music helps them study, but studies have found that students’ perceptions that music helps are not accurate based on the study results. Student performances are consistently better with silence during task performance, even though the same students report their performances are better with music. Silence is golden…a sentiment not appreciated enough in today’s high tech world.

Sources and More Information

Cutler, David. Don’t Listen to Music While Studying. December 4, 2013. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/dont-listen-music-while-studying-david-cutler

Doraiswamy, Sheela. Does Music Help You Study? October 8, 2012. https://www.mindthesciencegap.org/2012/10/08/does-music-help-you-study/

Perham, Nick and Sykora, Martinne. Disliked Music can be Better for Performance than Liked Music. January 12, 2012. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.2826/full

Perham, Nick and Vizard, Joanne. Can Preference for Background Music Mediate the Irrelevant Sound Effect? July 20 2010. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.1731/full

Spiegel, Alix. ‘Mozart Effect’ Was Just What We Wanted To Hear. June 28, 2010. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128104580
Joanne Ewen, JD, EMT

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