Plenty of people swear by music as a helpful tool for studying and working. Others find it impossible to concentrate with any background noise at all.
Music does offer a lot of benefits, including:
- improved mood
- increased motivation
- improved memory and brain stimulation
- better management of pain and fatigue
With these in mind, it might seem fairly logical that music can improve your study sessions. But not everyone agrees. So what’s the deal — does it help or not?
Music doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, so the answer to this question is more complex than a straightforward “yes” or “no.”
That said, it’s certainly true that some types of music can boost concentration and memory as well as increase alertness.
Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of studying with music and get some tips for making the most out of your study playlist.
It would be fantastic if you could put on a playlist or song that could help you knock out a problem set or memorize all those dates for your history final, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, music isn’t quite that powerful. It mostly helps in indirect ways, but those benefits can still make a big difference.
It can motivate you
If you’ve ever grappled with a long, exhausting night of homework, your resolve to keep studying may have started to flag long before you finished.
Perhaps you promised yourself a reward in order to get through the study session, such as the latest episode of a show you like or your favorite takeout meal.
Research from 2019 suggests music can activate the same reward centers in your brain as other things you enjoy. Rewarding yourself with your favorite music can provide the motivation you need to learn new information.
If you prefer music that doesn’t work well for studying (more on that below), listening to your favorite songs during study breaks could motivate you to study harder.
It improves your mood
Music doesn’t just motivate you. It can also help reduce stress and promote a more positive mindset.
Research suggests that a good mood generally improves your learning outcomes. You’ll likely have more success with studying and learning new material when you’re feeling good.
Studying can be stressful, especially when you don’t entirely understand the subject material. If you feel overwhelmed or upset, putting on some music can help you relax and work more effectively.
It can increase focus
According to a 2007 study from the Stanford University School of Medicine, music — classical music, specifically — can help your brain absorb and interpret new information more easily.
Your brain processes the abundance of information it receives from the world around you by separating it into smaller segments.
The researchers found evidence to suggest that music can engage your brain in such a way that it trains it to pay better attention to events and make predictions about what might happen.
How does this help you study? Well, if you struggle to make sense of new material, listening to music could make this process easier.
You can also link the ability to make better predictions about events to reasoning skills.
Improved reasoning abilities won’t help you pull answers out of thin air come exam time. But you could notice a difference in your ability to reason your way to these answers based on the information you do have.
Other research also supports music as a possible method of improving focus.
It could help you memorize new information
According to a
These findings suggest certain types of music can help boost memorization abilities and other cognitive functions.
Music helps stimulate your brain, similar to the way exercise helps stimulate your body.
The more you exercise your muscles, the stronger they become, right? Giving your brain a cognitive workout could help strengthen it in a similar fashion.
Not everyone finds music helpful for tasks that require concentration.
It can distract you
An important part of music’s impact lies in its power to distract.
When you feel sad or stressed, distracting yourself with your favorite tunes can help lift your spirits.
But distraction probably isn’t what you’re looking for when you need to hit the books.
If you’re trying to argue your position in a term paper or solve a difficult calculus equation, music that’s too loud or fast might just interrupt your thoughts and hinder your process.
It can have a negative impact on working memory
Working memory refers to the information you use for problem-solving, learning, and other cognitive tasks.
You use working memory when trying to remember:
- items on a list
- steps for solving a math problem
- a sequence of events
Most people can work with a few pieces of information at a time. A high working memory capacity means you can handle more material.
Research suggests, however, that listening to music can reduce working memory capacity.
If you already have a hard time manipulating multiple pieces of information, listening to music could make this process even more challenging.
It can lower reading comprehension
Certain types of music, including fast music, loud music, and music with lyrics, can make it harder to understand and absorb reading material.
Whether you’re looking at an evening of Victorian literature or some one-on-one time with your biology textbook, soft classical music with a slow tempo may be a better choice.
Listening to music while you study or work doesn’t always make you less productive or efficient.
If you prefer to study with music, there’s no need to give it up. Keeping these tips in mind can help you find the most helpful music for work and study:
- Avoid music with lyrics. Any music that has lyrics in a language you understand will probably prove more distracting than helpful.
- Choose slow, instrumental music. Existing research generally focuses on classical music, but if you don’t enjoy this genre, you could also consider soft electronic, space, or ambient — the kind you might hear at a spa or while getting a massage.
- Avoid surprising or experimental music. Music that changes abruptly or lacks a fixed rhythm can leave you guessing about what to expect. This can distract your brain and keep you from focusing on your work.
- Keep the volume low. Study music should stay at a background volume. If it’s too loud, it could disrupt your thinking process.
- Stick to songs you don’t have strong feelings about. Listening to music you either love or hate can affect your ability to concentrate.
- Stream commercial-free music, if possible. Picture this: You’re listening to your instrumental Pandora station when a toilet paper commercial cuts in, annoying you and derailing your train of thought. Enough said.
Even when music doesn’t help you concentrate, you might find it tough to work in complete silence.
The problem with silence is that it’s usually not complete. Noises from roommates, children, neighbors, coworkers, traffic, and so on can become constant disruptions and keep you from getting anything done.
Sound familiar? If so, you might consider giving other types of audio a try.
If you prefer the outdoors to your office or study desk, soft nature sounds might provide a relaxing atmosphere that makes your work more pleasant.
You’ve got plenty of options:
- waterfalls and rushing rivers
- ocean waves
- birdsong and rustling leaves
You can find nature sounds on YouTube, Pandora, and other streaming services.
If random sounds in the background interrupt your concentration, white noise, which muffles background noise, could help you maintain your focus.
Give it a try with a white noise machine or online generator, such as the free app A Soft Murmur. You might even have some white noise generators at home already: Just tune your radio to static or turn on a fan.
While binaural beat research is still in the early stages, limited
Binaural beats are an auditory illusion produced when you hear two different sounds at the same time, one in each ear.
These sounds have similar frequencies, but they aren’t exactly the same. Your brain takes the difference between these two sound frequencies — say, 187 Hertz (Hz) in the left ear, 201 Hz in the right — and produces a third sound at the frequency of this difference, or 14 Hz. This is the sound you hear.
Many find these beat stimulations beneficial for a range of issues, including:
Music can improve your mood and help you feel more motivated to tackle important tasks, but it doesn’t always work as a study tool.
Even people who love music might find it less than helpful when trying to concentrate.
Choosing music carefully can help you maximize its benefits, but if you still struggle to focus, it may help to consider white noise or other audio options instead.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.