Is listening to music while studying a good idea? Yes & No.

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Music while studying – good or bad? Decide after reading these guidelines.

A little bit of research went into concluding what I am about to say, I even tested some hypotheses (unpublished & for fun). These guidelines will help you decide if listening to music while studying is good for you or not.

A word of caution. The answer is not yes or no. It is very contextual and you’ll need to focus on 4 primary things:

  1. What are you studying while listening to something?
  2. What type of music are you listening to?
  3. What sort of study outcome are you expecting?
  4. How good are you at concentrating?
Should music be heard while studying?
6 Insights to help you choose music while studying


6 things you should know before you start listening to music while studying

These are some guidelines based on experimental data. You should be aware of these factors before you make your playlist and get to studying.

There are a lot of anecdotes for why listening to music is good or why it is bad. You’ll have cases and arguments for both sides. Arguments with multiple intensities. You’ll have people saying ‘music made me a topper.’ And you’ll also have people saying ‘I need music but I shouldn’t have because I couldn’t concentrate during exams.’

These points will help you understand the deeper layer of music and learning.

1. Music is a stimulus which is attractive. That means it will draw your attention. People’s attention is generally very limited and you might not want to waste your attention on things not related to studying. Although, there is one exception. If you have ADHD or ADD, background noise or light music could stimulate you just enough for you to feel at ease and not seek out more distraction. Light electronic or ambient music works best if you have ADHD. 

2. Our ears are primed to attend to the human voice. So music with vocals is a bad idea, it will distract you. Music with guitar, violins, saxophone, trumpets, etc. is also a bad idea because the timbre (sound) of these instruments is such that it overlaps with the human voice. In fact, the general frequency range of the notes played on these instruments is very similar to that of our voices so our brains will automatically get distracted. If you are using your short-term memory for computations, such music will certainly hamper learning. 

3. A lot of memory experiments have been done with music and a general finding is that recall of what you learn while listening to music is better IF you recall it later while listening to that same music again. So if you are listening to music while studying and you don’t have access to the same music while performing a test on what you have learnt, your recall will be compromised.

4. Partially contradicting the previous point I’ve mentioned…If you are a musician and you have learnt how to remember details of a song or learn the notes of your instrument, etc. you can make associations with memory tasks. For example, making a tune of something you have to remember, like a mnemonic. You could learn something by singing it or giving it a rhythm, etc. Because, if you are a musician, you probably have developed an intuitive way to understand your notes. So it is easy for you to remember what bit of information is associated with a particular note. 

5. When you are reading papers or essays, you shouldn’t listen to any music as repetition in music automatically demands more attention. On the other hand, if you are working on visual design, or looking for creative outputs, the background noise/music can help you get out of a mental block. As music affects a lot of different brain regions which aid in different cognitive abilities, you might just get lucky and think creatively because the music stimulated a certain brain region. So in this case (for creative work) music could benefit you WHILE working on the task at hand or your study material.

6. For conceptual understanding in any subject: Don’t listen to music. Period. Use all your attention and working memory to take mental notes, revise and chunk important information. Focus all of your energy on mentally making the theory come ‘alive’ in your head (visualize, narrate a story, physically walk through it, etc.). Leaving the specifics of this aside as it is irrelevant here. I’ll provide details in the comments section if you need more.


I will conclude that it’s safe to listen to music while studying if:

  1. You are diagnosed with ADHD and need some background stimulation 
  2. Working on creative things 
  3. You are studying very casually and don’t mind working at a slow pace

If not, light music might work but most music, especially vocal music, can be detrimental.

Summary: Listening to music while studying will hamper memory tasks, calculations, and attention to detail for most people. Creativity seems to be the exception.

I’ve written another post on the topic which specifically looks at the influence of music on work-related productivity and creativity.

The article linked above has more academic sources which could help you decide if you should listen to music while studying/learning/working. Go ahead, if these insights are not enough, you really should read that article too.

Resources:

  1. A coherence effect in multimedia learning: The case for minimizing irrelevant sounds in the design of multimedia instructional messages. 
  2. Effects of background music on phonological short-term memory
  3. Music for Your ADHD ears
  4. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/d…


P.S. If at all you choose to listen to music, keep it low volume, just enough to comfortably talk over successfully.

P.P.S. This is the very first post I wrote on my blog which later turned into this website. Oh, and it needs an upgrade.

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8 thoughts on “Is listening to music while studying a good idea? Yes & No.”

  1. Thanks for your value adding comment Bruce! Yeah, the congruence between exam conditions and study conditions is important. Olfaction certainly is strongly associated with memory. Good point.

  2. Number three, on a related topic called 'State-dependant-memory'. It's known that recall is better when associated factors of the learning experience are present at the time needing recall. Therefore, for students sitting exams, conditions for learning should be as near exam conditions as possible e.g. quiet classroom atmosphere except, of course, for creative visual topics. Any association added in a learning situation should be reproducable in an exam room. Some suggest wearing a cologne for study only and again for the exam and also continue to use the same stationary items used when studying.

  3. He certainly gave the right advice! Hahaha yes, you could keep the headset away! But, if you are as distractible as I am in the afternoons, some background noise/stimulation will help you concentrate. 😛

  4. Thanks FrostBite, yes there are articles and academic papers that I have come across which point to these conclusions. I'll add them as references in this article soon.

  5. Whoa! That does make sense. My father used to tell me all the time that I should not play music while studying. I still played it when he was not around to notice it. His reason: music distracts the brain. I did not listen because I thought it was just his opinion.

    Now, after 48 years, my son is saying the same thing in this article and he is considered an expert on the topic. I guess it's not too late to do the right thing :B!

    I'm keeping my headset away :-D!!

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