Does music help or hurt my studying? Yes.

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Everyone has at some point has tried to study in a place (your dorm, a lounge, maybe even the library) where there’s a lot of noise and realized, “I’m not at home in my quiet bedroom anymore.” Maybe somebody’s playing music with a beat that makes the walls vibrate, the people in the hallway are chatting, or the people next to you are watching TV loudly. So you put in your headphones and listen to your own music, trying to drown it all out while you crank out some work. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself doing this a lot and the nagging question of “is this helping or hurting me” comes to mind, so I looked into it. I looked at a few different things: First, does the genre and your preferences matter? Second, does volume matter? Third, does music affect you differently when you’re doing different types of homework?

From the research I did into various studies, the most important conclusion is this: it’s (almost) always better to study in silence. In this randomized and repeated study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers found that lyrical music and unattended speech (example: people talking in regular conversation) had the worst effect on memory and cognition, followed by instrumental music. Steady noise (like from white noise or pink noise simulator) and silence had essentially equal effects on performance and seem to be the best option for studying involving memory and basic levels of computation (such as reading, counting, calculating, and reasoning). This study also showed there’s little difference between steady ambient noise and silence when it comes to memory. Though there wasn’t explanation for why steady noise and silence were essentially equal environments, I have a hypothesis: both steady noise and silence are consistent and allow your brain to focus without diverting attention to the sounds around you. Where even classical music changes pitch and tempo, and takes some of your concentration, steady noise and silence don’t. Here’s that in list form:

  • Best to Worst Conditions to Study In
    • Silence and steady noise
    • Instrumental music
    • Unattended Speech and Lyrical music

I checked out too if music preference has anything to do with academic concentration. It might make sense that if I really love listening to a certain band, I might have a harder time concentrating on my work if their music is playing. It also might make sense to say that listening to my favorite band gets me pumped and ready to roll when it comes to my work and music I dislike might distract me more (like a bad smell). This is where that whole “human intuition is lousy” concept comes in. As it turns out, many studies including this one in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal found that there was no difference in “serial recall performance” between liked and disliked music conditions…and again, these were “significantly poorer than the quiet and steady-state speech conditions.” Again, I found the study to be properly randomized with multiple experiments to replicate the findings even within the study. SO! Silence/steady noise is still the best option, and music preference doesn’t seem to affect memory recall and cognition skills.

But there’s just one more thing that I wanted to check out. All of these studies dealt with memory and computation skills, but not all homework is memory and computation. In fact, for most of us non-science majors, a lot of our homework deals with critical thinking and creative thought processes (whether it’s English Literature, Visual Arts, or Marketing). So I looked at another study on the effects of music on creative cognition. First, if you’re concerned, I think the study did a decent job of quantifying creativity. In all of the experiments, participants were asked to do a creative task (example: generate new ideas for a mattress), there was an independent panel of judges randomly selected to evaluate the creativity of their work, and the scores were then averaged for an overall “creativity score.” Though creativity is extremely subjective and hard to evaluate, I found this study to be valid. The study concluded that participants were the most creative when there was a moderate level of ambient noise and that low and high levels of ambient noise were equally worse. Why though? Basically, when there’s the noise, that noise disrupts cognitive processes and this is called processing disfluency. But when the level of noise is just right, a certain amount of distraction leads to creative thought. It’s basically a Goldilocks Theory: too little noise and your brain isn’t distracted enough to be creative, too much noise and even creative processing becomes too difficult.

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Source here

But a moderate amount of noise or music (around 70 decibels) in effect shakes your brain out of its normal thinking patterns enough that you can think in abstract creative terms.

So what’s the take home message? Try to find a consistent and quiet environment to work in. If you can’t, maybe try listening to white or pink noise to “block out” the random distractions. If you’re doing “creative” homework, consider listening to medium volume music or ambient noise in order to create that “processing disfluency” that I mentioned earlier. In the end, you have to create a musical/noise environment in which you’re focusing the most on your work rather than the environment itself.

6 thoughts on “Does music help or hurt my studying? Yes.

  1. Abigail Kennedy Post author

    Eva and Ann, I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!

    Alexandra, I just want to be clear, the studies show that genre is not a big factor when it comes to concentration. Lyrical music is shown to be more distracting than instrumental music, but that has to do with the verbal component, not genre. Pop music versus rock versus rap, there is no difference. I encourage you to look at some of the research links I included in the original post. As far as duration of the music goes, I don’t know if I follow you. How long you listen isn’t material, it’s whether you listen or not.

    Maryann and Lauren, I am not discounting music as an educational tool altogether, but as far as listening to music while studying memory-based and computational homework goes, the evidence is clear. Lauren, I read the blog you cited and it is not a credible source. It is primarily opinion based, and its only factual information comes from Wikipedia and talks about the Mozart Effect, a heavily debunked theory. After the initial “discovery” of the Mozart Effects, three different studies in 1994, 1995, and 1997 tried to replicate it and failed, says the Yale Scientific Magazine . More since then have led the scientific community to believe the notion that “after listening to music, test subjects performed better on spatial tasks” is a false conclusion, according to theHarvard Graduate School of Education . The Harvard article states that the theory has been significantly debunked, and so has the idea that musical training helps to improve intelligence. The initial study proving that musical training improves intelligence had statistically insignificant results and was too small of a study size (15 children). Also, if you look back at my blog, I did note how music potentially can be helpful when working on creative homework and when you need a little processing disfluency to start thinking abstractly. As far as your personal experiences goes with music and studying, it’s possible that your music in effect “blocks out” the passing noise around you, but that doesn’t mean that you concentrate better than if you were studying in complete silence. Again, when I cited the ambient steady noise (like white and pink noise) as alternatives, it was because the studies demonstrated that there was no significant statistical difference between performances in silence and those two categories had a significant advantage over any kind of music. Keep in mind that your individual experiences are anecdotal. My evidence comes from many broad studies that have been tested and replicated. Your claims are based off of your opinions of your study habits, not an experiment. It’s also a self-report, which is subject to bias from anyone. I love music very much (I’m even in an a cappella group here), but based off the research, music and studying don’t typically mix.

  2. Lauren Marie Freid

    I decided to comment on this post because I agree and disagree with certain aspects of your argument. I think that people have different things to help their study habits. Everyone is different, so people respond to different things in different ways. Some people, such as myself, do homework with loud music because it personally helps me concentrate. Others put on some sort of soft background white noise because music is too distracting. Other people think music provides a total distraction for them to do homework so they have to work in a completely quiet environment. Often, people talking distract me from doing my homework, but music helps me stay focused. I think there are also confounding (third) variables that contribute to this. It depends how you are as a person, your personality, and studying habits in order to experiment on if music helps people study or not. I think the take home message here is that there will be various factors in the environment around you that will factor into what you need to benefit your studying habits, and everyone works differently. So, if anyone is having trouble studying, I would experiment with various methods and see what best works for you. Below is a list of different studying habits for college students to try!

  3. Maryann Deanna Valentine

    Although I find your post stimulating, I disagree with your hypothesis’. As an active music listener, I find studying with music playing has benefited my studies in numerous ways. First off, music creates a humble environment for me to shut out the physical world. When music is not playing, I find it difficult to concentrate since my mind is normally focusing on other thoughts. According to, the article “Music can help you study,” demonstrates my theory. The article states “Studies have shown that the right kind of music can help you relax your mind which enables you to concentrate better.” Certain types of music add to this concentration as well. Genres such as Baroque, Classical, and Jazz have been proven to stimulate the brain, as well. So, for all your music lovers out there, do not fear- your songs may just improve your grades!

  4. Ann

    Awesome blog! It was so informative and relevant. I have such a hard time studying with noises around me, and with this many people on campus, it is a struggle. The University of Phoenix agreed with your findings; that people who studied with no music performed better academically and were able to recall more. The University of Phoenix however, also elaborated that listening to music with lyrics while learning new languages is especially harmful. The study found that ” lyrics affect the same parts of the brain that comprehend language.” So I guess if you are inclined to study with your favorite tunes, make sure you don’t do it while studying for Spanish.

  5. Alexandra Elizabeth Brooks

    Those are three really good variables to look at while measuring the effectiveness of studying, but I think more importantly other variables such as how long you listen to the music. I know when trying to fall asleep, there are many songs and remedies available to help calm ones brain and help them transition into sleep mode, and I’m curious if there is something available for doing homework, to help one concentrate. If genre is a big factor, then I really think the length of time spent listening to the music is important as well.

  6. Eva Luz Bonta

    This explains so much! I really enjoy English/writing papers and I always listen to “study music” when I write. But when I have to actually study or memorize something, I have to be somewhere really quiet. This makes complete sense and I’m glad to know I’m not crazy.

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