"How on earth can you study when you're listening to that racket?" It's a phrase we've all heard our parents use at some point. But, while 'the Mozart effect' (the idea that listening to Mozart makes you more intelligent) has been widely refuted, there is a large body of scientific research that suggests listening to background music does actually help you study.
The arguments for listening to music while studying?
- It heightens your mood, which leads to positive performance
- Soothing music can reduce stress and anxiety (known blockers to concentration)
There are some very significant caveats to be aware of, however, and as with many of these questions, whether someone performs well when listening to music really depends on the person and their individual circumstances and preferences. Here's what you need to know.
The truth behind the "Mozart effect." Does listening to classical music actually make you smarter? https://t.co/bXtTDxHcUU— Farley's House of Pianos (@farleyspianos) November 14, 2018
Listening to music while studying: The arguments for
One of the most common theories in favour of listening to music while you study is that of Schellenberg and colleagues. Here, they argue that listening to upbeat or 'happy' music creates a positive mood, which then leads to better performance.1 Essentially, if you're happy, you're going to work a lot better than if you're sad.
Linked to this is the idea that music can be a stress reliever. Numerous studies have investigated the impact of music on anxiety. The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response,2 for example, exposed 60 healthy females to a standardised psychological stress test after listening to different types of music. The study found that listening to relaxing music had an impact primarily on the autonomic nervous system (people who listened to relaxing music recovered faster after the stress test), as well as the psychological stress response (though to a lesser extent).
Where stress can significantly hamper an individual's ability to focus, listening to soothing music can have a positive impact on cognitive abilities.
So music does help you study? ... It's not as simple as that!
While numerous studies indicate a positive correlation between music and study, there are some important points to know about before you get the bass blaring.
Firstly, D. M. Jones et al found that rapid changes in music tempo or type of music can have a negative effect on focus because it is more distracting - it is harder to relegate music to 'background noise' when it's constantly changing all the time.
Likewise, listening to music with lyrics can also be a distraction. "Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you're writing or reading," said Clifford Nass, Communication Professor at Stanford University, speaking to USA Today in 2012. "Probably less of an effect on math, if you're not using the language parts of your brain." This is because if you're listening to lyrics but also paying attention to words on a page, your brain is more likely to get confused between all the different words.
The argument for music as a stress reliever relies on that music being relaxing - heavy beats are unlikely to keep your blood pressure down. A study by Hallam et al into school pupils completing a maths task found that they performed best with calming music, second with silence, and worst with aggressive music.4
Tips for listening to music while studying
Ultimately, there are many different variables that decide whether someone studies better with music. If you want to try it, follow these tips to ensure you're still getting the most from your study time:
- Try and listen to the same genre of music with a similar tempo to ensure you don't get distracted.
- Track when you feel at your most productive - what task are you doing and what type of music are you listening to? This will enable you to work out patterns in what type of music you work best to for any given task, or whether silence will help focus your attention better.
- If you get stressed out easily, loud or fast-paced music may not be a good idea, as it could agitate you further. However, if you thrive under fast-paced conditions, feel free to get that drum and bass going!
- When memorising words or studying language, it's best to listen to instrumental music instead of songs with with lyrics (less of an issue if you're studying maths, however).
- If you are easily distracted, it may be best to turn the music off - but it's entirely a personal preference.
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1. Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35, 5-19.
2. Thoma MV, La Marca R, Brönnimann R, Finkel L, Ehlert U, et al. (2013) The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response. PLOS ONE 8(8): e70156.
3. Jones, D. M., Alford, D., Macken, W. J., Banbury, S. P., & Tremblay, S. (2000). Interference from degraded auditory stimuli: linear effects of changing-state in the irrelevant sequence. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 108, 1082-1088.
4. Hallam, S., Price, J., & Katsarou, G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils' task performance. Educational Studies, 28, 111-122.