Take a look around your local library or Starbucks. You’ll notice that most students are plugging away at their studying with headphones on. But is it actually beneficial to listen to music while you study? In this post, we’ll dive into the research and help you determine if studying with music is a good idea for you.
First, let’s dispel some of the common myths you may have heard regarding music and studying, starting with the Mozart Effect. The Mozart Effect describes a brief 10-15 minute enhancement of spatial-temporal abilities in college students after listening to a Mozart piano sonata. More specifically, this improvement is restricted to a singular abstract mental rotation task, but in the 90’s this took hold as a scientific legend, with lay people convinced that listening to Mozart was going to make their kids more intelligent. I remember when I was in elementary school, several teachers would have us work for extended periods while listening to classical music for precisely this reason.
This finding was initially found by Rauscher and colleagues in 1993, but attempts to replicate these findings by other researchers yielded mixed results. Pietschnig and colleagues in 2010 performed a meta-analysis, meaning they systematically analyzed dozens of studies on the Mozart effect to determine what the culmination of scientific literature had to say on the subject. Interestingly, they found that studies associated with certain labs, like those of Rauscher, were much more likely to report favorable results. With a confounding publication bias, we must apply a downward correction of effects reported. Their conclusion? “On the whole, there is little evidence left for a specific, performance-enhancing Mozart effect.” It’s safe to say that the Mozart effect does not improve the intelligence of children, does not improve academic achievement, and does not even improve long term spatial skills.
But Music Helps Me Study, Right?
To determine if and when you should listen to music while you study, we first need to explore the relevant hypotheses.
There are a few hypotheses that hinge on arousal states and its effect on performance. First, the arousal hypothesis states that music leads to an optimal level of arousal in the brain, thus improving performance on cognitive tasks. The mood hypothesis states that music you enjoy is more likely to put you in a positive mood, which ultimately improves arousal states, and therefore enhances performance on spatial tasks. Lastly, the preference hypothesis states that listening to music you prefer improves arousal, thus enhancing cognitive performance. Others have suggested a rhythm theory, whereby the rhythm of music activates the cerebellum and aids in spatial reasoning tasks.
However, none of these hypotheses are robust, each with significant deficiencies in explaining the scientific findings. Rather, we must take a more individualized approach to music and studying, as it appears that three factors are key in determining whether music is beneficial while studying: 1) personality type, 2) the type of work, and 3) the type of music.
1 | Personality Type
Christopher and colleagues in 2017 hypothesized that differences in attention and working memory capacity would effect the degree to which music would influence performance. They concluded that the higher an individual’s working memory capacity, the less likely they were to be affected by music, at least for reading comprehension.
Dobbs and colleagues in 2011 found that music had a detrimental effect in performance on introverts, but less so for extraverts. This aligns with Eysenck’s theory of cortical arousal states, stating that extraverts are under-stimulated and desire more stimulation, whereas introverts are already overstimulated and avoid situations that further increase arousal.
Anderson and Fuller in 2010 found an interesting tie with metacognition and music. Metacognition is thinking about thinking, and includes the ability to regulate one’s own mental processes and activity. Given the substantial evidence that music while studying is not optimal, they believe that those who choose to may have a deficiency in metacognition. They had students choose whether they wanted to study with music or silence, and they found that those who preferred to listen to music while they studied did markedly worse on a reading-comprehension assessment.
2 | Type of Work
There has been substantial evidence that the type of work is a key factor in determining whether or not music is appropriate.
When it comes to reading comprehension, most studies have demonstrated that music has detrimental effects. Only one study reported reading comprehension performance was unaffected.
But when it comes to arithmetic, the results are quite mixed. A handful of studies demonstrate no negative effect, while a handful of others demonstrate a decline.
3 | Type of Music
A few studies have demonstrated that vocal music is more distracting that instrumental. The theory is that with vocals, your brain is multitasking by processing the voices.
Beyond that, there hasn’t been any convincing evidence stating that a certain genre, like classical music, is superior to any other type of music.
The Verdict on Music and Studying
The moment you’ve all been waiting for – should you study with music or in silence? As with most things in science, it depends. My advice is as follows:
1 | Music Choice
First, if you are going to study with music, be sure to choose music that lacks vocals. Vocals are going to be distracting and ultimately much more likely to have a detrimental effect on your studying. Beyond that, choose music you enjoy. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no evidence that classical music is superior for studying. Finding instrumental music you enjoy is going to be the most important factor. I personally opt for Emancipator, Edamame, Blackmill, and several others. I send out study music recommendations in my weekly newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.
2 | Experiment with Different Study Scenarios
Second, experiment with different study scenarios. Unfortunately, the scientific literature is far from conclusive, so self-experimentation becomes important. Back in college, prior to reading any research about music and studying, I had quickly determined from my own experience that listening to music while reading was on average more distracting than studying in silence. But when it came to cranking through chemistry or physics practice problems, music made the experience more enjoyable. You will likely find similar results, but try it out for yourself. You’ll notice that some types of work and studying are more conducive to music than others.
I also learned that having a good study song on repeat helped me get in the zone and study for longer periods without fatigue. This is supported by the changing state hypothesis, which suggests rapidly changing music will distract you from learning and ultimately decrease performance. I would often have Deadmau5 HR 8938 Cephei on repeat.
3 | Use Music as a Boost
From examining the literature, it’s clear that music won’t make you magically perform better or learn faster. The question is finding which type of music is going to be the least distracting and least detrimental. Study after study has examined the effect of silence versus music while doing a variety of cognitive tasks. The issue, however, is that no study has examined the effects of music on prolonged study sessions.
From personal experience, I believe that music has helped me study for longer periods of time. I often start working in silence, and as I feel myself getting bored or my mind wandering, I’ll put on some instrumental music I enjoy. With this newfound burst in energy and positive vibes, I’m able to marathon with my studying for much longer. My suggestion to you is to try the same – use music as a boost or a pick-me-up when your momentum begins to drop.
Do you like studying with music or in silence? Let me know your favorite artists and songs below as I’m always looking for new music recs.