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Study Music: Smart Move or Self-Sabotage?

Many students listen to music while studying, to improve their focus. Other people (like your mom) say it’s a distraction. Here’s how science sees it.

You rarely go anywhere, outside of the shower, without your music. Odds are you’re wearing earbuds right now. If that describes you, it’s only natural that you’d listen to tunes while you’re doing that most solitary, contemplative of activities: studying.

You may feel that background music actually gives you an edge when you hit the books. Perhaps you have run across references to the “Mozart Effect,” a theory put forth in the 1990s that listening to the 18th-century composer’s piano sonatas can help you to concentrate and absorb new information. You may even have taken a leap of faith that the same cognitive jolt can be inspired by Sam Smith or Imagine Dragons.

Is studying to music working for you? Or are you worried that this habit may be making it harder for you to absorb and retain key facts? Course Hero culled through years of research, and the results may be music to your ears.

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Is it a good idea to study with music?

It may interest you to know that scientists have been all over this question for decades. For most of the 1990s, there seemed to be scientific consensus that the Mozart Effect was real. Even the politicians got in on it. In 1998, Georgia governor Zell Miller proposed adding $105,000 to the state budget to provide every Georgia schoolchild with a classical music tape or CD.

Just a year later, scientific support for the Mozart Effect had all but evaporated, as researchers failed to replicate the results of the original study. Today, there are those who cling to the suggestion that music can provide clinically measurable benefits, but few experts still claim that Mozart makes you smarter.

So for all the studies—and there have been many over the last 30 years—scientists can’t seem to agree on the benefits, or the hazards, of studying to music. The effect seems to depend on the person and, to some extent, the music.

Are you one of those people who benefits from cramming to Mozart, or Ed Sheeran? Or are you the sort who needs a background of white noise, or silence, to study most effectively? Or does it matter at all? For now, it seems you’re going to have to work this out on your own.

Science can, however, give you some useful hints to see whether your habits are helping or hurting your quest for good grades.

Why do you use study music?

study music

Start by asking yourself why you have your music with you in the first place. In other words, what is music for? In a 2013 German study, researchers looked at people’s reasons for listening to music. They asked study participants to complete a sentence starting with “I listen to music. . . .” The hundreds of responses boiled down to three main motivations:

  • Social connection. Your taste in music helps to define your personality and creates a bond with people whose taste is similar.
  • Self-awareness. Music puts you in touch with your feelings, gives you an escape hatch when things aren’t going well, and may even help you reflect on your life’s purpose.
  • Mood regulation. Music puts you in a specific state of mind (relaxed, alert, happy) and helps you filter out negative or distracting influences around you.

So what is the main reason you listen to music, and what does that tell you about listening as a part of your study habit? If you study to Beyoncé because her tunes are the common bond between you and your friends, then you may be dividing your attention between studying and savoring the good times you associate with those songs.

On the other hand, lots of things can become distractions when you’re trying to absorb new material: people and events, ambient noise, and both the good and troubling things going on in your life. For many people, music can occupy just enough brain space that they can focus on what matters—even differential equations or Paradise Lost.

In fact, people with ADHD, who are more easily distracted by noise and activity around them, often find that having something to focus part of their conscious attention on—like music—can help them function at a higher level.

The scientific jury’s still out, of course. But if you’re really using music to calm yourself, filter out distractions, and put your mind in a state that’s more receptive to taking in information—and if your grades are where they need to be—you’re probably listening for the right reasons.

What’s the best music for studying?

best music for studying

For those who don’t subscribe to studying in silence, are there right and wrong ways to use music as a tool? Here’s what science suggests so far:

Skip the sing-alongs

The research seems to suggest that you should stick to relatively calm music without lyrics. Instrumental music slips into place at the back of your consciousness, but lyrics tend to grab your attention away from the material that should be your focus—especially if they’re lyrics you like a lot, ones that tell a story, and most particularly ones you know well.

Choose tunes that don’t move you

Familiar music is distracting because you unconsciously anticipate where the song is going. Waiting for that favorite guitar break might actually increase the likelihood that you will lose focus on the work you’re doing.

The good news? The answer is not to study to music you don’t like. If the sound annoys you, it’s likely to muddy your thoughts, not clear them. Instead, it may be that the best study tunes are ones you’re neutral about—not your favorite music, but not the songs that ruin your day if they’re stuck in your head.

Mix up your playlist

Another provocative theory suggests that it’s easier to recall learned material if you absorb the content under conditions that are similar to those you’ll be experiencing when you need to retrieve it (e.g., at exam time). This, of course, supports the idea of studying in a quiet place, like the room where you’ll be taking the test. But here’s a twist: Some experts say it’s even better to study in short bursts under diverse conditions. This way, recall isn’t linked to any specific location or noise level. If there’s anything to this idea, then listening to several different kinds of music while studying might make it easier to recall the details anytime, anywhere.

Can listening to study music boost my grades?

can study music help boost grades?

Don’t expect music itself to improve recall or make you smarter. But if listening while studying is your style, and if you’re satisfied with your academic performance, the science seems to suggest you’re on solid ground.

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