Studying for finals or completing your end-of-year projects? (Cue the opening of Spotify’s “Ultimate Study Music Playlist” on devices everywhere.) Many students attest to the power of music to elevate their academic performance, according to a recent survey by Student Health 101. “Music helps me calm down before a big test, focus better [while] studying, and cut out distractions,” says Kali G., an online student at the University of Wyoming.
Music can lower stress levels and improve test performance
Music can stimulate our thinking and sustain our attention for some study tasks, research suggests. A 2020 study found that nursing students who listened to relaxing music while doing progressive muscle relaxation (a mindfulness technique) before a test performed better on their exams and had lower stress levels than students who did neither before the exam. In another study, students who attended a videotaped lecture with classical music playing in the background scored higher on a subsequent quiz than students who heard the lecture without music (Learning and Individual Differences). The pauses between musical movements may help our brains focus and organize new information, according to a study in Neuron.
Types of music that can hinder learning
It doesn’t all sound good, however. In 2017, researchers found that students who listened to music while reading a text on the concept of time zones scored poorly on a test compared to those who studied in silence (Frontiers in Psychology). Another study suggested that fast, loud music reduced reading comprehension (Psychology of Music, 2011).
So does music help or hinder learning? “It often depends on the individual and what works best for them,” says Stephen Williams, coordinator for the music therapy program at Capilano University in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “For some of us, music playing in the background helps us focus on a task, while for others it could be distracting. For most people, relaxing music in the background can help create an atmosphere that is supportive of studying. Others, who might find background music distracting, might use the music as a reward or a break from studying.”
Even if you do well with background music while studying, be wary of lyrics, drama, a too-upbeat tempo, and high volume. “The 1812 Overture [by Tchaikovsky] would not be a good study aid, unless you were studying to be a demolitions expert,” Alan Chapman, a classical radio host and producer, told USC News.
Students’ favorite study music
In our survey, students recommended instrumental, classical, jazz, electronic, and film or video game soundtracks. “I listen to all sorts of music when I’m studying, but it really depends on what type of studying I’m doing to help decide on a genre,” says Jessica V., a fourth-year student at the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado. “It’s always good to listen to classical music when you’re trying to read textbooks or write important papers. Other times, you need music that will keep you pumped and [keep] you from falling asleep. Then I usually go for something upbeat.” If you’re working on a creative task, try an ambient noise soundtrack (e.g., the Coffitivity app): A 2012 study found that the moderate background noise of a coffee shop or TV can enhance creativity (Journal of Consumer Research).
“Soundtracks, classical music, New Age, or light electronic music tend to suit me well for studying.”
—Alec S., second-year graduate student, Colorado School of Mines
“Calming music, like Enya.”
—Hava M., fifth-year student, University of Delaware
“I prefer music that fades into the background, like lo-fi hip hop or white noise. Some light EDM [electronic dance music] may also work for some people, but not me.”
—Jeremy B., first-year graduate student, University of Florida
“I usually listen to classical piano or mixes that incorporate binaural beats to help me focus.”
—Gabrielle H., fourth-year student, University of California, Berkeley
“Epic music is good since it doesn’t have words for studying. I like Twenty One Pilots or AJR if I am working on a paper.”
—Mellissa H., second-year graduate student, Northern Illinois University
“I like to listen to soundtracks, especially video game soundtracks. Their sound is designed to help you focus and they can pep you up for a difficult assignment.”
—Jacob W., first-year graduate student, Duke University, North Carolina
“Instrumental music, always. I usually listen to lo-fi or the soundscapes/sleep music from the Headspace app. Lyrics or anything catchy and upbeat is way too distracting.”
—Mariyam M., first-year student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia, Canada
“Oldies, country, Christian music.”
—Alexander V., fourth-year student, California State University, San Bernardino
“I listen to top 40/pop/upbeat music (but on a low volume). It helps me to stay awake and concentrate. I have ADHD and I end up fidgeting or getting super distracted if there is no music.”
—Alyssa D., second-year student, Mount Royal University, Alberta, Canada
“Music that makes a person feel happy and energetic. I would suggest pop music or any song with a good beat.”
—Autumn Z., first-year student, King University (online)
Stephen Williams, program coordinator for music therapy, Capilano University, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Baker, M. (2007, August 1). Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds. Stanford Medicine News Center. Retrieved from https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2007/07/music-moves-brain-to-pay-attention-stanford-study-finds.html
Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., & Scelles, N. (2012). Music during lectures: Will students learn better? Learning and Individual Differences, 22(2), 258–262.
Engel, A. (2014, December 5). Studying for finals? Let classical music help. USC News, University of Southern California. Retrieved from https://news.usc.edu/71969/studying-for-finals-let-classical-music-help/
Forde, W., Schellenberg, G., & Letnic, A. K. (2011). Fast and loud background music disrupts reading comprehension. Psychology of Music, 40(6), 700–708.
Gallego-Gómez, J. I., Balanza, S., Leal-Llopis, J., & García-Méndez, J. A., et al. (2020). Effectiveness of music therapy and progressive muscle relaxation in reducing stress before exams and improving academic performance in nursing students: A randomized trial. Nurse Education Today, 84, 104217.
Goodwin, E. (2015, January 31). Do or don’t: Studying while listening to music. ULoop. Retrieved from http://www.uloop.com/news/view.php/149570/Do-Or-Dont-Studying-While-Listening-To
Kandari, C., Raijas, P., Ahvenainen, M., Philips, A. K., et al. (2015). The effect of listening to music on human transcriptome. PeerJ. Retrieved from https://peerj.com/articles/830/
Lehmann, J., & Seufert, T. (2017). The influence of background music on learning in the light of different theoretical perspectives and the role of working memory capacity. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1902. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01902
Mehta, R., Rui, Z., & Cheema, A. (2012). Is noise always bad? The effects of ambient noise on creative cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 784–799.
Sridharan, D., Levitin, D. J., Chafe, C. H., Berger, J., et al. (2007). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521–532.
Tickell, S. C. (2012, September 10). Should you listen to music while you study? USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2012/09/10/should-you-listen-to-music-while-you-study/37397177/