Does Music Help or Hurt While Studying?

As finals quickly approach, most of us students are cramming as much in as we possibly can.  This made me contemplate how I could possibly increase the effectiveness of my studying.  I know that I have seen many students around campus listening to music while they study, but that never worked very well for me.  First I questioned if I was listening to the wrong kind of music, but then I questioned if maybe I was doing it right by not listening to music as I study.  I decided to use science to determine the answer to whether music should help or hurt a person’s study time.

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Surprisingly, it was rather hard to find the answer to this question.  I found many different articles online that contained largely opinions, and they were either for it or against it.  It was actually fairly hard to find scientific articles that were based on real studies.  When I eventually did find some scientific articles, it was still just as hard to find a clear answer because most articles were strongly for or against it.

One study put people into 3 groups and assigned each group a level of background music while they worked on an attention test: one group got no music as a control group, another group got music only 10 minutes before they worked on the test, and the third group listened to music for 10 minutes as they were working on the test.  The study found that listening to music 10 minutes prior to working actually made people more productive than if they had not listened at all (Shih).  However, there was extreme variation when it came to the group who listened to music while they took the test.  Another study from the University of Wales studied students’ abilities to complete a serial-recall test while they were placed in 5 different scenarios:

  1. A quiet environment
  1. With “steady state” speech. This means a single word (in this case, “three”) was repeated for the duration of the test
  1. With “changing state” speech. This means a variety of words (in this case, random digits from 1-9) were played during the test
  1. With “liked” music, meaning a song of the student’s choice (such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna, or Arcade Fire). Students brought in their own music, the only requirement was that it had to have vocals
  1. With “disliked” music, which in this case was a metal song called “Thrashers” by Death Angel (all students in the study disliked metal) (Sheela Doraiswamy, 2012)

This study found that it didn’t matter whether a person liked the music that they were listening or not.  The students were equally distracted by both music that was liked and music that was not liked.  The study also found that students in a quiet environment and in a steady state speech environment performed significantly better than students in the other three environments (Perham).  However, I believe that the most surprising conclusion of the study was that student performed just as poorly while listening to music as they did listening to changing state speech (which was hypothesized to be the most distracting before the study).  Upon looking further I found a huge problem with this study; it only had 25 participants. Therefore, it was not a large enough sample to really prove much through the results.  A third study that I found from the University of Dayton concluded that having Mozart being played as background music actually improved spatial and linguistic processing abilities (Angel).  This study shows that classical music may be beneficial as background music.

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So, what can we conclude from all of this?  Is it beneficial to listen to music while studying?  The answer to that question really depends on the type of music that is being played and the person who is trying to study.  There are huge variations, from person to person, in the effects of listening to music while studying.

Works Cited

Angel, Leslie A., Donald J. Polzella, and Greg C. Elvers. “BACKGROUND MUSIC AND COGNITIVE PERFORMANCE.” Ammons Scientific. University of Dayton, 1 June 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

Doraiswamy, Sheela. “Does Music Help You Study? – Mind the Science Gap.” Mind the Science Gap RSS. WordPress, 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

Perham, Nick. “Can Preference for Background Music Mediate the Irrelevant Sound Effect?” Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, 20 July 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

Shih, Yi-Nuo. “Correlation between Work Concentration Level and Background Music: A Pilot Study.” IOS Press Content Library. N.p., 2009. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

6 thoughts on “Does Music Help or Hurt While Studying?

  1. John Wilson Mcavoy

    Considering that I am listening to music right now and do every time I do homework or study, this post immediately caught my eye. i always feel that when its silent, I get distracted more. Im not sure if its because of my ADHD but when its silent I tend to get distracted thinking I am hearing things or vibrations. I saw a study at one point that said if a single song is listened to on repeat while studying, and then the song is listened to again while taking the test, improved test scores were shown

  2. Philip Littleton

    I am a music enthusiast and I would say I listen to music for more than half of the day. For me, listening to music works for only a certain type of homework. When I am trying to grind out some math, I will pump some of my favorite tunes to help me through it; however, if I have to crank out a paper or even write a blog I cannot concentrate with music on. However, after reading this post, I resorted to listening to classical music while writing because the lack of singing won’t distract me.

  3. Angela M Hardin

    I am a music lover. I almost always have it on. That being said, if I am really trying to concentrate, the first thing I do is turn the music down. On the contrary, I have found that if I am listening to a song while I study and here the same song during a test, the things I studied come back to me.

  4. Madeline Nicole Policastro

    I love this blog! I know that i used to try studying to my favorite songs hoping that it would help be study because it almost made the experience enjoyable. Turns out it was largely distracting. However I still hated just studying in silence. I found that listening to classical music or ocean waves is so helpful when studying. It helps me relax and focus at the same time.

  5. zrl5024

    It all depends on the person and like the studies that you’ve included a person may or may not study as well, but in the end it’s all about if they can retain the information. I think this question can go two routes. One being to test the music theory on studying for kids who have learning disabilities whether it be ADHD, processing disorder, dyslexia, and so forth. The second route is to increase the size of the study and to ask the participants if they have felt that on a previous exam they had a better or worse time studying with music play, and from here assess what kind of music they are listening too. I know classical music has also been shown to help in getting a person to sleep, again depends upon the individual.

  6. Rachel Wynn Evans

    Great blog post, it was very cool to see the different dichotomies you explored. I am very interested in this topic because, while my roommate needs absolute silence to focus, I prefer studying with music, and very loud music at that. I think it definitely depends on the persona and their characteristics. People more interested in music and more in-tune with rhythm and more likely to find consolation in listening with undergoing stressful amounts of studying. However, I have looked at many studies, ( and it seems as if I am the odd ball out here. What does everyone else think? What kind of music, if any, is most conducive to retaining information or productivity?

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