The Pros and Cons of Listening to Music While Studying

Music affects a large part of our cognitive ability and psychological state. It can impact our focus, how we retain information, and our stress levels. Whether or not students should listen to music while studying has been a topic of great debate for a long time and will continue to be one as our technological habits continuously evolve. There is plenty of evidence arguing on both sides, but here is a quick breakdown of some of the major points so that you can decide whether or not playing your favourite tracks in the background of a study session is hurting or helping your success.

You might’ve heard of something called the Mozart Effect; a term often used to argue that listening to music is hugely beneficial to your intellectual ability and therefore helps you study. However, the research behind the effect isn’t as supportive of your favourite playlist as you might think. The study concluded that listening to Mozart ten minutes before taking a test led to a noticeable improvement in comprehending complex ideas, providing zero evidence that hearing to a modern artist while you read or recall information makes a difference in your favour. In fact, some studies show that pop music does the opposite. Since we are naturally social beings, our brains are drawn to speaking (or singing) voices which may distract us from the things we’re trying to study. Playlists with songs of varying volume and tempo can be especially distracting. Plus, some have argued that while specific tracks may aid memorization during reading sessions, for any recall benefits to be put to use the student would have to listen to the same song during a test (which is usually impossible).  While it may be beginning to sound like you definitely shouldn’t listen to music while studying, don’t be discouraged! The answer to the pro-music or anti-music debate isn’t that simple because there are plenty of benefits to the practice too. Firstly, university life is full of stress, and a significant amount of that is educational – heightened to an extreme during exam season. Studies show that this strain can cause psychological distress and affect academic performance.  Fortunately, music can help with this. It is widely known that music can improve our mood, due to a release of dopamine in our brains linked to feelings of euphoria, and it can also decrease our stress levels. This mood improvement carries over to our educational practices by enhancing memory formation, prolonging our endurance abilities, and providing motivation to keep us focused on the work ahead of us.   Another benefit to listening to music while studying is its isolating power when you find yourself in an otherwise busy, loud, or distracting environment. Not everyone has the same access to a secluded space where they can find complete silence, even when that’s what they would prefer. In this case, students tend to use background music to tune out all other noise. In a study comparing academic success in test environments where subjects were surrounded by background music or simply background noise, students with musical surroundings tested better. This effectiveness of using music to tune things out and focus on study material is probably why you see so many students wearing headphones in public study spaces.  This topic has been – and will continue to be – highly debated, mainly because there isn’t one right or wrong answer. It all depends on who you are and what you’re doing. For example, one study argues that extraverts tend to be more successful with memory recall while listening to music than introverts. It is also argued that verbal reasoning tasks (comprehending concepts through words such as reading a passage of text) are better accompanied with music than abstract perceptual reasoning tasks (understanding concepts and logic on a general level such as relating a diagram to your coursework).

There isn’t a definite conclusion to this debate because the practice’s success is highly variable and personal. For example, I can listen to my favourite upbeat songs while taking notes, but I will sometimes have to turn to chill playlists in languages I can’t understand so that my surroundings are tuned out, but my focus is clear (I highly recommend Café montréalais on Spotify). If listening to music doesn’t work for you, maybe have a jam session before opening your notes to get some of the uplifting psychological effects. On the other hand, if the music is an essential part of a successful study session for you, happy listening!