Studying with Music

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Do you automatically reach for your headphones when you start to study? A recent study found that 92% of people say they listen to music at least sometimes while they are working or studying. In fact, about 45% of people said they do this all the time. You may plug in your headphones to block out distractions, to get into a calmer or more productive mood, or maybe you read somewhere music can help you study better. Either way, listening to music has become a normal part of studying for many students.

Scientists have conducted plenty of research in recent years to find out whether listening to music is helpful or harmful for studying. Most researchers set out with one of two assumptions: A, background music can improve your studying because it boosts your mood, and therefore your brain function, or B, the extra stimulus distracts your brain and prevents your brain from being able to focus completely on what you are doing.

One study had groups of people learn vocabulary pairs for three sessions, either in silence or with classical music playing in the background. On a test a week later, even though the students who had music playing while they studied did better on average than people who studied with no music, the results were not the same for everyone, leading to inconclusive results.

Further research has shown that whether or not music is helpful actually depends on the task that participants are doing. While every study has different parameters and different conclusions, most results seem to indicate that music is most helpful for studying math and least helpful for reading and writing exercises.

Interestingly, more in-depth studies have found extroverted people are more likely to favor studying with music than introverts. However, results were still inconsistent and inconclusive for all of the people in any given group.

What may come as a bigger surprise is that one study from the University of Wales found, even though students did worse overall on their tests when there was background music playing, there didn’t seem to be any difference in scores between students who had music they liked playing versus music they didn’t like.

That being said, many experts do believe factors like the music’s genre and tempo, as well as whether you’re used to having music on, can make a bigger difference than these studies accounted for. Considering this, let’s look at some of the types of music that are most commonly used for studying.

Classical music. Research has found classical music in general (and baroque music like Bach or Vivaldi in particular), activates both sides of the brain, which helps in retaining information.

Jazz. Whether or not it has lyrics, jazz can be great because, while it’s complex, it also tends to be less repetitive than many other genres, which many experts say helps the brain stay sharp and avoid fatigue or boredom.  

Heavy metal. Believe it or not, some people find certain kinds of heavy metal (specifically progressive metal and technical metal) are the most helpful to them when they’re studying. This could be because some kinds of metal have complex writing similar to jazz, or simply because the higher tempo increases blood flow, which increases brain functioning.

Ambient noise. Some people also find that, instead of music, they are more productive when they listen to ambient tracks, such as nature sounds or nonverbal ASMR triggers, which have a calming effect, allowing the brain to focus better.

You may notice that the reasoning behind ambient tracks seems to contradict what we just said about heavy metal. The truth is while they are opposites, they are both true, depending on the circumstances; it just depends on what you need at the time. Think of it like drinking coffee versus meditating. Each can help you focus, but for different reasons based on the situation.

Another important factor to consider is where you are. In a crowded room at school, or in a house with lots of noise, sometimes music is simply a way of blocking out more obvious distractions. In that case, the research is significantly less relevant, because while music may or may not be better than silence, it’s definitely better than not being able to study at all. Whatever you do choose to listen to, it’s worth noting that nearly everyone agrees low volume is important if you want it to be helpful instead of distracting.

Ultimately, whether or not you should listen to music while you study is entirely up to you. As is often the case, it’s difficult to draw any hard conclusions from the research available, but regardless of what science can or can’t prove, for now, lots of students find they get more done when they have the option of listening to music while they work. I have a cousin who says he hasn’t written an essay without listening to something in the background for almost 5 years!

Just like anything else, sometimes, in order to be optimally productive, you just have to be honest with yourself to find out what works and what doesn’t.

To read more about listening to music while you study, check out these pages:

https://www.qsleap.com/gmat/resources/is-listening-to-music-while-studying-good-or-bad

http://www.rocketmemory.com/articles/music-and-studying/

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/11/10-1

Evan Weinberger

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