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A little bit of research went into concluding what I am about to say; I even tested some hypotheses (unpublished & for fun).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?

8 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, and scientists have found many nuances. You’ll have cases and arguments for both sides. Arguments with multiple conditions. 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 counterbalances lack of attention and task difficulty to optimize learning

Music is a stimulus that 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. This makes the question about “task load” – how difficult or demanding is the study material? Real-world self-chosen music (not experimentally prescribed) can help to learn and focus when study material is easy or boring. People have different preferences for songs based on their vocal content, rhythm, musical characteristics, and danceability when the task is difficult. Most people intuitively figure out what intensity of music works for different levels of task difficulty. A general tendency is to choose stimulating music for boring tasks and calming but non-vocal music for difficult tasks.

2. Vocal music is more distracting and hampers learning

Our ears are primed to attend to the human voice. So music with vocals is a bad idea; it will distract you. Music with guitars, violins, saxophones, 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. For mathematical work, non-verbal, non-lead, and calming music can help.

Research suggests there is a hierarchy in the type of sounds that disrupt memory: vocal music and speech are most interfering than instrumental music, and noise and silence are functionally equal in terms of how they affect cognitive performance. Although, some research does suggest that noise is better because the noise from the environment turns into internal biological noise, which improves neural signaling through stochastic resonance (adding noise to a weak signal boosts it)

3. Remembering only when you have the same music playing

Many 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. The phenomenon is called “context-dependent memory” or “state-dependent memory.” This creates a problem for exams because if you learn a list of words while listening to background music, your recall will be better with the same music and worse with different or no music. When you study for exams with music, gradually remove music from the equation and practice mock tests or short quizzes without it so you can trust your recall when the musical context of learning is no longer there.

4. Music can help with ADHD

If you have ADHD, background noise or light music could stimulate you just enough for good cognitive functioning and make you feel at ease without needing more distractions. Light electronic or ambient music works best if you have ADHD. ADHD is likely caused by low dopamine activity, and music can increase it through the anticipation of musical sequences/elements and the peak emotions created by music. White noise can also help ADHD children but hamper non-ADHD children while doing cognitive work like calculations, memorizing, analysis, etc.

5. Making study information musical

Partially contradicting the previous point I’ve mentioned, if you are a musician and you have learned how to remember details of a song or learn the notes of your instrument, 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. As a musician, you probably have developed musical schemas and templates that automatically improve memory for musical information. So it is easy for you to remember what bit of information is associated with a particular note. 

6. Using music to boost creativity

When you are reading papers or essays, you shouldn’t listen to any music as repetition and familiarity in music automatically demands more attention. On the other hand, if you are working on creative assignments, the background noise/music can help you get out of a mental block. As music engages 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.

7. No music for reading comprehension, calculations, and conceptual understanding

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. You learn and remember well when you can process information deeply. Focus all of your energy on mentally making the theory come ‘alive’ in your head (visualize, narrate a story, connect it to real life, etc.). Fast and loud music dramatically worsens reading comprehension, but low-intensity and slow music might be ok, depending on your need for stimulation.

8. Music is a motivator, and your belief about how it affects you matters

Children’s and adults’ beliefs about how music affects learning indicate its effectiveness. Partly through an accurate understanding of their learning capacity and partly through a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they believe background songs help them focus and learn better, chances are it actually does help.

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 casually or doing a boring assignment.

If not, light music might work, but most music, especially vocal music, can be detrimental when study material gets difficult.

I’ve written another post on the topic, which specifically looks at the influence of music on work-related productivity and creativity. Go ahead, if these insights are not enough, you really should read that article too.

FAQs

Should you listen to music when you are studying a boring subject?

Yes, music can help reduce boredom and monotony while studying a boring topic. It can also associate pleasure with a topic you dislike. Boredom generally means you are unstimulated and need more stimulation, so music can offer it.

Should you listen to music while doing a complex task?

When a task needs high attention and active processing, like computing, planning, memorizing, or spotting details, music is generally not a good idea. If at all you need to listen to music during a complex task, listen to calming music instead of vocal music. Vocal and lyrics you understand, or music you really like can be distracting because you would automatically start paying attention to the music and not your task.

Is instrumental music good while studying?

In most cases, instrumental music with mild variety is not distracting and can help you focus for a long time and reduce mind-wandering. Music that you like or dislike a lot is generally not a good idea, so mildly likable music without vocals or dramatic changes can help.

Should you listen to music when there are other distractions like traffic sounds, human chatter, and construction sounds?

Music through earphones can work as a shield that blocks out other random noises. So if you are in a busy, loud, or distracting area while studying, music can form a layer of background noise that drowns other noises.

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Which genre of music is ideal for studying?

Instrumental music like classical, D&B, synthwave, instrumental rock, music with unfamiliar languages, etc., are a good idea to help you maintain a balanced amount of arousal while studying without feeling distracted or too occupied with music. Rap, Hip-hop, Metal, hard rock, Vocal Jazz, etc., are naturally distracting genres due to a large amount of catchy vocals and dramatic musical changes.

Can you listen to music between study sessions?

Music between study sessions is a good way to relax and engage brain regions that you don’t use while studying. Activating these brain regions can help with creative thinking.

Should you listen to music during creative assignments?

Background music can induce a positive mood and help with creative thinking. Music can pull brain resources from unexpected brain regions, and that can help with creative thinking. A positive mood also helps creativity because positive emotions facilitate novel thinking and trigger unexpected ideas, according to the broaden and build theory.

Is white or pink noise ok while reading and writing?

White and pink noise is a popular choice of background sound that helps people focus. In most cases, it should help you stimulate your brain just enough to maintain focus while reading and writing. Since it has no words or musical patterns, it is not distracting.

When should you avoid music?

Avoid music while reading, memorizing, solving complicated problems, and comprehension tasks. Avoid music with vocals in particular while reading because lyrics can occupy limited resources from the auditory component of working memory, which should ideally be dedicated to reading. Light instrumental music is ok while reading.

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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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