Should you listen to music while studying?

Is listening to music while you study actually a good idea? While the answer is really up to you, it is useful to understand the pros and cons to popping in those headphones while you're hitting the books.

22 days ago   •   4 min read

By Michaela Spiteri
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Is listening to music while you study actually a good idea? While the answer is really up to you, it is useful to understand the pros and cons to popping in those headphones while you're hitting the books.

Maybe you can’t write that essay without your heavy techno. Finding the right kind of music to listen to whilst studying is key - we will run through all this as we break down whether the music approach is the way to go.

The pros

Better mood

You may be familiar with the Mozart effect – the philosophy that listening to Mozart will make you ‘smarter’. The study found that when students listened to classical music such as Mozart, their exam results significantly improved. Researchers put this down to the music’s ability to stimulate the problem-solving parts of our brain necessary for answering maths-style questions. While the conclusions sure are favourable if you are struggling to solve those really tricky  equations, unfortunately further research debunked the ‘Mozart effect’, rendering it merely a myth.

But how can we explain the correlation between better scores and listening to music while studying? Well, the fact is, music really just puts us in a better mood. And, if we are in a better mood while studying we are more motivated and productive (hence the better test results).

There have been several studies that evidence this idea. For example, research undertaken in the 1990s revealed the ‘Blur Effect’. Students who listened to the popular band, Blur, once again scored better on tests. This time, the effect was actually greater than the Mozart effect – kinds enjoyed listening to pop music a whole lot more than classical music.

Moral of the story – research shows that listening to music while we study can be a really effective way to make something that isn’t all that enjoyable much more bearable.  

Relieve some stress

Research undertaken in 2021 demonstrated that ICU patients felt less pain and anxiety after listening to music for 30 minutes than before. Applying this to the study context, listening to music has the benefit of relieving the stress and anxiety that may be associated with studying challenging or overwhelming concepts.

Motivation

This one goes hand in hand with the ability for music to put us in a better mood. If you’ve ever found yourself in a position where studying is the last thing you feel like doing (despite your assignment being due in less than 24 hours… we’ve all been there), you might set yourself a little reward to help get you through it. Maybe it's an episode of your favourite show or your snack of choice. In the same way, 2019 research shows that music can trigger the same reward centres in your brain as these other enjoyments. Listening to your favourite music can offer the motivation required to put pen to paper or absorb new information.

But listening to music while studying may not be for everyone so let's consider the drawbacks...  

The cons

Reducing your working memory

Working memory is part of your short-term memory that stores a small amount of information and is used to execute cognitive tasks. This might include remembering items on a list or recalling the specific steps needed to solve a chemistry equation. Research suggests that listening to music while studying may limit your working memory, meaning your brain can not handle and process as much information at a given time. If you already feel overwhelmed when trying to recall different pieces of information at once, listening to music could throw an additional spanner in the works.

Reducing your reading comprehension

Similarly, studies have demonstrated that listening to music can also reduce our reading comprehension, especially when lyrics are involved. So, when you are researching that history assignment it might be better to try out some mellow classical music to save you from having to re-read that article another time.

Distraction

For many, music is a source of distraction... a momentary escape from reality! So if this is the case for you, listening to music may not be the best bet when you need to get that assignment done or finish off that overdue maths homework. Often the level of distraction will depend on the type of music that you are listening to – if the music is too loud it might interrupt your thoughts. Similarly, if you’re anything like me, music with lyrics can be super distracting when you just can’t quite fight the urge to sing along (even if it’s just in your head).

This brings me to my next point...

What kind of music works best?

This one is really up to you but evidence shows that classical or relaxing music that acts as white noise is best to help mitigate those cons. For some, upbeat music might help boost motivation to study but you should try avoid music with lyrics where you find yourself getting distracted – look for those instrumental versions!

The takeaway

So while listening to music while you study won’t necessarily make you smarter, it can definitely help to improve your mood and get you through those tougher study sessions. However there are some caveats – try to find a balance between music that doesn’t distract you to the point where you’re forgetting information or struggling to process what you’re reading, but still puts you in a good mood!

Spread the word

Keep reading