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A little bit of research went into concluding what I am about to say; I even tested some hypotheses (unpublished & for fun).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?
- 8 things you should know before you start listening to music while studying
- 1. Music counterbalances lack of attention and task difficulty to optimize learning
- 2. Music with vocals/lyrics is more distracting and hampers learning
- 3. Remembering only when you have the same music playing
- 4. Music can help with ADHD
- 5. Making study information musical
- 6. Using music to boost creativity
- 7. No music for reading comprehension, calculations, and conceptual understanding
- 8. Music is a motivator and your belief about how it affects you matters
- Listening to music while reading
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 mechanics of how music affects 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. Music with vocals/lyrics 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.
Music with lyrics generally hamper all cognitive tasks like reading, listening, verbal memory, visual memory, with the exception being math. The same study found that instrumental music did not improve or worsen performance, but many students believe there is a benefit to instrumental music.
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. However,, 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
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. You’d expect to get habituated to the music and not focus on it, but chances are you love that music and it grabs your attention. On the other hand, if you are working on
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.
Listening to music while reading
Reading is probably the most common study activity. Let’s take the case of reading words (not numbers) and listening to music with vocals. There is direct interference between the words in the song and the words you are reading that worsens your ability to pay attention and figure out the meaning of what you are reading/listening to. The interference exists because the human brain has a little compartment in its memory called the “phonological loop,” which caters to auditory information while doing a task. Listening to lyrics or reading words puts information in that compartment. Having 2 streams of data interfere with each other because they are fighting for the same space in the brain. Even though reading is visual, your inner voice is auditory. If both streams match exactly, your reading comprehension improves, exactly how subtitles while listening help. But vocal music and reading material most certainly interfere and then degrade verbal comprehension.
Similar to the phonological loop, there is another “semantic” compartment in memory that deals with the meaning of words while doing a task. Listening to background human chatter typically worsens reading comprehension because the chatter is fighting for space in that compartment when your reading material should be the only thing in it.
I will conclude that it’s safe to listen to music while studying if:
- Your need for stimulation is high, and the study material is too boring.
- Working on creative things.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.