Does Music Help You Study?

by Sheela Doraiswamy on October 8, 2012

Image from freedigitalphotos.net. (I apologize in advance- there were no good comics for this topic.)

If you’re a student, I am almost willing to bet that you have music playing right now. Maybe it’s Drake, maybe it’s Mumford and Sons, or maybe it’s The Beatles. Whatever your preference, I’m sure you love listening to your favorite artists every chance you get— maybe even while you study. Is playing your favorite song an easy way to make that homework bearable, or are you hurting your performance?

Previous research has found numerous benefits to listening to music before performing a task– it improves attention, memory, and even mental math ability. It has also been found to alleviate depression and anxiety.

However, the more realistic scenario is that students will study or do homework while playing “background music.” A recent study at the University of Wales looked at how background music affects students’ ability to complete a serial recall (remembering items in a specific order) test.

Students were given a serial recall test in five different scenarios–

1. A quiet environment

2. With “steady state” speech. This means a single word (in this case, “three”) was repeated for the duration of the test

3. With “changing state” speech. This means a variety of words (in this case, random digits from 1-9) were played during the test

4. With “liked” music, meaning a song of the students 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

5. With “disliked” music, which in this case was a metal song called “Thrashers” by Death Angel (all students in the study disliked metal)

The researchers expected that the changing state speech would have the most detrimental effect on the students’ performance. Think about it like this– changing state is like having to do your homework while someone else is talking. Steady state is more like repetitive background noise (a noisy heater, for example), which is easier to tune out.

Surprisingly, the results actually found no significant difference between test scores with liked music, disliked music, and changing state speech. In other words, whether students enjoyed the music or not, having it on while they worked was just as distracting as hearing someone talk. Scores were significantly higher for tests taken in a quiet environment or with steady-state speech. In a subjective assessment of each scenario, students did say that the test with their liked music was “more pleasant,” but they did not find it any less distracting. The researchers hypothesize that they would see similar results if they were to repeat this procedure using a reading comprehension test.

But before you sadly put your iPod away, feeling that you’ve lost your only way of making homework bearable, consider this:  Another similar study that tested liked music’s effect on attention found similar results, but the researchers also noticed something intriguing. The students who took a test with music did have a lower average score than those who didn’t have music,  but the researchers noted that there was a lot of variation in the scores. This could imply that the effect of music can vary a lot from person to person, and they believe that more research needs to be done on how factors such as tempo, genre, or whether students are used to having music on, make any difference.

Furthermore, we should also note that these studies only looked at music with vocals, and not music that was purely instrumental. Research from the University of Dayton found that students performed better at spatial and linguistic processing if Mozart was playing in the background. So maybe having instrumental music can help performance, since it doesn’t have any distracting vocals. Again, think about it like you’re trying to work while someone’s talking to you (or just consider that maybe you’ll feel like singing along instead of doing your work!)

Conclusion:

So should you listen to music while you study or do homework? Unfortunately, the answer I have to give you is “it depends!” It seems like in general, music with vocals is distracting, while instrumental music might actually help your performance.

We will have to wait for more research, but for now I’d say if you want some music to lighten up that homework, go for some instrumental  jazz, classical, or if you’re a movie-addict like me, try a movie score (the soundtrack of The Social Network got me through GRE prep).

Margaret October 8, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Sheela,
Thank you! I have for years had trouble studying or working with music. It is very distracting to me since I have synesthesia. (I see music), but several teachers and other people have told me that I would study better with music in the background. It always seems to distract. Now I know that I am not the only one.

Nice topic, I liked the way you started with questions that you sort of answered at the end. Good, informative sources as well. Do you prefer to study with music? Or since you are a movie buff with a movie going on in the background?

Thanks,
Margaret

Sheela Doraiswamy October 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Hi Margaret, glad I could help! I am not all that surprised that the second study found a lot of variation– my guess, just from experience, is that this will also really depend on the person and what they are used to, but we’ll have to wait and see what further research shows on the subject.

As for me, I do like having music on, but I prefer instrumental music when I study. As I mentioned in my post, movie scores work pretty well for me, usually. Another thing I think would be an interesting research topic would be looking at whether the language the vocal music is in will have an effect. From personal experience, it seems like when I listen to music in languages I don’t understand, it doesn’t distract me the way that English music does. For example, I don’t know very much Hindi, but I listen to Hindi music and I’ve found that it only distracts me if I listen to something with simple enough lyrics for me to understand. I’d love to hear a good explanation for why that might be!

Personally I can’t work with the TV on. If the tv is on, that’s where my concentration goes, usually. Over the years I’ve had lots of friends who are able to do homework while watching tv, and I’ve always been pretty jealous of them! Unfortunately I have to save my movie watching for when my homework is done!

Margaret October 9, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Sheela,
Too bad, for me it is the other way around. I can put on a good marathon and do lots of homework (admittedly not as quickly as without tv., but for longer periods., but put on some music and it takes all of my attention. I would like to see more research into this as well. Thanks again!
Margaret

Elizabeth Fryer October 9, 2012 at 11:43 am

Hi Sheela,
In school I found I could study better without music. I now work as a writer/editor and CANNOT work with music on—and do a good job. If I am doing something that doesn’t require concentration, for instance, performing an electronic search for a word, which appears many times, that needs to be capitalized, I can have music playing. TV is a different story. I never work in front of a TV, but I can read on one end of the couch while my husband watches TV from the other.

I liked seeing the ref to U. Dayton, my undergrad alma mater. : )

I’ll say this again, though I’m not sure I’ve said it too you: You all need to assess whether writing in first person adds anything to the post. In this case, it doesn’t, except for the final parenthetical phrase. If you hadn’t used first-person earlier, setting a personal example off *in parentheses* is still OK, meaning if you avoid first-person through the whole post and then pop in a personal story at the end without parathesis, it will throw readers. The parantheses provide the appropriate separation and clue readers in to “this may not fit with rest of writing.”

Your first sentence is “If you’re a student, I am almost willing to bet that you have music playing right now.”
Try
“…you probably have music playing…”

In your conclusion, “Unfortunately, the answer I have to give you is ‘it depends!’”
Try
“Unfortunately, the answer is, ‘it depends’.”

Removing first-person will tighten your writing and give it more authority.

Andrew Maynard October 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Hi Elizabeth,

I think that assessing whether writing in the first person adds to a post is very helpful advice. But given that there is still a trend toward more personal writing styles, and that blogs are by their nature personal, I wonder whether you could say more about how you would gauge whether to write in first person or not.

Thanks

Tarun Johnson October 12, 2012 at 1:04 am

Funny but still rings true. When we were kids, my dad always used to get angry at my brother and me because we could never study without music running in the background, sometimes it was TV!! Dad could never get over the fact that I still scored really high on all my exams even though I wasn’t ‘doing it right’. :) Good times. Now I really crossed his expectations so he’s quite happy with me ;) I even started my own site to help aspirants prepare for the best GRE prep , since i scored really high on that (yes, I listened to music while preparing, come at me skeptics).
As you said Sheela, this depends on person to person. I guess it depends whether you want to study with music in the background, or listen to music with a book in front of you!

Sarah February 7, 2013 at 11:16 am

hunter hayes helps me study plus his songs are really good. I lison to his songs in all my classes and even gym. I need his songs to help me get through the long time of homework. Hunter hayes helps me alot try his songs out

SouthPaw February 21, 2013 at 3:23 am

If I a could see music I sure as hell wouldn’t be studying or doing much for that matter, i’d be running around having a ball!

I like to consider music a mild stimulant and an entertainment. If you have some chillstep music in the background while your studying this could help you definately, it’s almost like having coffee.

Just for a little perspective I used to work in isolation (on a mine site) and the music was the only thing that could keep me sane. You must admit though now days everyone is a bit of a sensation seeker eg. technology, extreme sports, extreme drama. It’s never going to go back to the old days but that’s the best thing! ‘

All in all I think it comes down to whether the person has grown up their whole life listening to music and studying.

A-Man February 28, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Hey People, I was just reading your project and turns out I did something similar this year for Science Fair. It also turns out We both got the same results! I will soon update a website and give it to you for more info and research. I just have one question though, Was the testing all performed on the same age group of people or were there different people involved?
P.S. I am so glad we have gotten the same results.

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john11 March 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm

my daughters tells me she cant study without music! I will look on and await some results before i say anything.

Thanks

john

Daughter of John11 March 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Aye awryt da

destinysWalrus April 3, 2013 at 1:34 am

I am a college student, recently diagnosed with ADD. I may have synesthesia, as I sometimes do things like thinking of scents/sounds as having colors, shapes, or both (in case any of that information provides relevant context).

I find that music has a range of varying and strange effects on me. For one, I simply cannot count higher than either 4 or 8 (it depends) while listening to music (blame band and dance for that). It also messes with my typing speed – I pretty much have to try to type to the beat or it feels weird. I’ve noticed this is an incredibly helpful effect when listening to fast music and trying to get a writing assignment done, as the increased typing speed does not come with a proportional increase in the number of mistakes made. I am absolutely terrible at many P.E. activities, like running and sports, but if I listen to certain songs, my running time improves. Furthermore, one of the only times my balance is reasonably good is when I am playing Dance Dance Revolution. I have also discovered a playlist of songs that helps me focus on working, especially if the assignment I’m doing is something which requires more thought than usual. Furthermore, some of my classes in the past have gained “theme songs” for me to listen to during work for that class, which helped me focus more than other songs.

Much of the music on my iPod, and thus much of the music I listen to, is one of three categories: Christian, movie/game soundtrack, or classical. The last two categories are the ones that usually get listened to during work – classical usually works best if it’s a song or part of a song that I know really well, though for maximum helpfulness, the song must also be reasonably fast (or I’ll be almost forced to type slowly, and most of my work is on the computer). I have recently added some metal to my playlists, though I have not had it long enough to note the effects on my work/study behavior yet. It definitely helps me stay up if I need to work late, and the usually-fast tempo does mean I get writing done faster.

Apologies for the ridiculously long post, it’s about 11:30 at night when I’m typing this, and I have a tendency to write a lot more than usual if I’m writing in the middle of the night.

I would be very interested in any information/studies about music and the effects of music on people – it’s something not much seems to be known about, and at the moment my curiosity is urging me to learn more.

FOE April 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm

boooooring

Tammy April 11, 2013 at 7:13 am

I cannot study with music playing at all, cannot work with it on either, unless it is instrumental music without vocals or lyrics as I cannot listen to a song without listening to the lyrics word for word. Maybe that’s the link. My boyfriend is a musician and he cannot study without music on, and the lyrics/vocals aren’t a distraction at all, because for him the vocals are just another instrument adding to the melodies and harmonies of the songs. I think it all has to do with how you’re “wired” and how you hear music, what stands out for.

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Herpderp May 6, 2013 at 5:02 pm

I have multiple articles stating the exact opposite. In fact, I even tried this test, and and liked music got much better scores than disliked music. Liked music did better than silence as well.

Herpderp May 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm
Wolf May 8, 2013 at 11:24 pm

I think I study best when listening to Deadmau5 (probably because there are no words) so he is probably better than Skrillex for this stuff, or any artist who uses words in his/her songs

bestsoccerplayer May 9, 2013 at 8:08 am

If I a could see music I sure as hell wouldn’t be studying or doing much for that matter, i’d be running around having a ball!

bestsoccerplayer May 9, 2013 at 8:09 am

http://www.internetbestservices.com If I a could see music I sure as hell wouldn’t be studying or doing much for that matter, i’d be running around having a ball!

ladiezzcollegepresbo May 29, 2013 at 1:58 am

SOOOO SILLY I STUDY WITH MUSIC ON ERRIDAY AND I CANNOT STUDY WITHOUT IT YOLO !!!! SHOUT OUTZZZ

Brandon May 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm

That’s exactly what I think of this!

Every time I’m studying or working, and I’m listening to some music-with-vocals I can get easily distracted, even more if I know and like the song.

But if I put on some instrumental music, and even if I like it, it doesn’t seem to distract me that much, if any at all.

And when I say “instrumental” I’m not referring to Vivaldi or Bach, but to some “extreme” metal bands like Walknut, Depressor, Agalloch and many more black/black ambient bands.

Brandon May 30, 2013 at 8:25 pm

This page is screaming “SPAM MEEEE!!!!”

You’d better put some kind of captcha, or comment moderation. Cheers

chris June 3, 2013 at 5:12 pm

This helped alot with my science fair for class but what about different types of music? Like what if you play rock,rap, or country and have someone memories items. Does the music affect if they can remember the items in order?

Jessica June 5, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Hi Sheela! This helped me a lot when my mom banned me from playing music while I was studying or even doing homework because she thought I was too distracted. I showed her this and she changed her mind! Thank you so much for writing this :)

Naomie June 6, 2013 at 6:37 am

Hi Sheela! Great post! My parents banned me from playing my music which was quite upsetting, but i’ve realised that I do in fact find it easier to focus on my work when my favourite song isn’t playing in the background. You get so carried away… anyway my compromise is that the quicker I do my work the more music I can listen to now! Thanks for the good read :) xx

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