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A little bit of research went into concluding what I am about to say, I even tested some hypotheses (unpublished & for fun).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:
- What are you studying while listening to something?
- What type of music are you listening to?
- What sort of study outcome are you expecting?
- How good are you at concentrating?
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
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
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:
- You are diagnosed with ADHD and need some background stimulation
- Working on creative things
- 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.
- A coherence effect in multimedia learning: The case for minimizing irrelevant sounds in the design of multimedia instructional messages.
- Effects of background music on phonological short-term memory
- Music for Your ADHD ears
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.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Each article is frequently updated with new research findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.