Studying With Music: Arguments for & Against It

Does music really help you study?

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At some point, almost every student has experimented with using background music as a means to study or work more efficiently. 

It is no wonder, then, that the iconic YouTube channel Lofi Girl is currently approaching the 1B views mark.

But, does music actually make a legitimate difference in the effectiveness of an individual study session?

According to relevant science, listening to music while studying does have its advantages as well as significant disadvantages – one thing is for sure, there is no concrete “yes or no” answer to whether music affects studying positively.

If we leave the science out of it and look at the individual opinions of students, things stay just as complicated – many students swear by background music, while many learners are completely against ANY background noise.

The debate on whether music can help you study or not tends to boil down to two concrete arguments.

One side has the opinion that listening to music helps improve focus and concentration. The other camp says that they don’t want any additional noise because their own thoughts provide enough distraction as it is. Thus, for these students, music seems to make concentration even more difficult.

In this article, we will be looking at both the science and the individual experience of the students. In addition, we will explore both the advantages and disadvantages of listening to music while studying.

Hopefully, the article will let you decide on which option would suit you better –  studying in complete silence or doing the brain crunching with some light background music on.

Without further ado, let’s get started by looking at some advantages of listening to music while studying.

Here’s what you’ll find in this article:

Arguments for listening to music while studying

Here are four major advantages of listening to music while studying:

Learning about a new subject or going through a demanding online course can be overwhelming and stressful, even for the brightest of minds. Therefore, it is essential (at least if you want the study session to be fruitful) to study with a positive mindset.

Why? Well, research suggests that positive affect (term used in psychology for positive emotions and expression) improves a variety of cognitive processes.

Simply put, you will learn better when you are in a good mood.

This is where listening to music comes in – according to scientists from Stanford University, music can change brain functioning to the same extent as meditation.

It is a quick, easy, and cheap way of flooding your brain with endorphins and reaping the benefits of improved cognitive function immediately.

Music can help with completing repetitive tasks

According to a study by Fox & Embrey (1972), music can be a great productivity aid when you need to perform repetitive and more simple tasks.

For example, try listening to music when rewriting or editing a paper. Music can inspire you to tackle these somewhat tedious activities with greater efficiency.

Music can inspire you to tackle these somewhat tedious activities with greater efficiency. For example, try listening to music when rewriting or editing a paper. You’ll quickly see that you work more quickly and efficiently when listening to music.

Music can also make a boring activity seem less boring. Listening to music while doing something mundane, like creating charting tables or creating columns for Cornell notes.

Music can help with memorization

In one way or another, all learning is about memorization. And, according to science, background music can have a positive impact on human memory.

So, next time you are trying to memorize phrases from an online language course, have some background music on. It just might give your learning that extra boost.

Listening to music with headphones can cancel noise pollution

In a perfect world, you could always choose exactly where and when you study. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

There will be times when your study environment will work against you – distractions can come in the form of other family members, roommates, or traffic noise.

In such cases, putting on a pair of headphones would be a great way of fighting noise pollution. After all, a soothing collection of tunes will be a much better background to your studies than hearing your roommate play video games for hours on end.

Arguments against listening to music while studying

These are the two main drawbacks to listening to music while studying:

Lack of concentration

Whether you consciously notice it or not, your brain will put some extra resources into “decoding” the music playing in the background. This is especially true for songs with lyrics – instead of focusing on your studies, you will unconsciously try to listen to what the singer is saying. This can ultimately decrease your productivity by 10%. Thus, for tasks that require cognitively demanding and creative mental work, complete silence would be the best possible solution.

Complete silence promotes increased blood flow to the brain. This, in return, directly affects your capability to tackle more demanding mental tasks.

So, if you are planning on mastering a hard skill like PHP or Python, always try to find a place as silent as possible.

Music can trigger bad memories

Music can put you in a positive mood (thus enhancing your cognitive capabilities), but the reverse is also possible.

Some music can come with bad associations and lead you to a more negative state of mind. Which, in return, will dampen your learning capabilities.

You can combat this by avoiding music that is too dark or downbeat. Thinking about your high school heartbreaks is the last thing you want when studying for that Advanced Calculus exam.

4 Tips for using background music to enhance your mental capacity

If you are planning on experimenting with listening to music while studying, there are some things to consider. These tips will help you avoid some mistakes students commonly make when studying with background music.

Avoid music with lyrics!

It is not a coincidence that most of the music associated with studying is entirely instrumental.

According to a study by Perham/Currie (2014), music with lyrics has a negative effect on reading comprehension performance. The same study also finds that the same applies even when the student enjoys the music or already knows the lyrical content.

To conclude, do not choose albums, playlists, or songs with any lyrical content.

If you are not knowledgeable about instrumental music, the Lofi Girl YouTube channel mentioned in the introduction is the best place to start. For further inspiration, we will also list some music styles that we recommend experimenting with.

But, before we get into specific styles, allow me to explain why not all instrumental music works as a backdrop for a learning session.

Use background music that follows clear patterns

We already established that the debate is still on whether listening to music while studying is beneficial or not. But, one thing is clear – the type of music you choose for your study sessions matters!

Not any instrumental music is suitable background music by default. Music that is too progressive in nature is likely to throw your brain off the loop and distract you.

For example, listening to jazz while studying might “make sense” to some students, but jazz is quite chaotic in nature. Thus, I wouldn’t choose jazz as background music for studying, even if the pieces are entirely instrumental.

The lo-fi hip-hop beats have become such popular choices for study music because they generally follow a clear, defined rhythm. These beats provide a pleasant background ambiance that does not demand your brain for attention. 

Here are some other examples of music styles suitable for learning:

  • Ambient – Brian Eno, possibly the most famous ambient composer of all time, has described ambient music as music that “induces calm and a space to think”. This is exactly what you want when selecting suitable music for getting some studying done.
  • Downtempo – Similar to ambient, but with a bigger focus on beats. The atmospheric sounds and the mellow beats make downtempo a great backdrop for long study sessions.
  • Classical – The Mozart Effect has been effectively debunked. Listening to classical music does NOT make you smarter. Still, classical music can enhance your mood and put you in the right mind frame for studying. Reading while listening to classical is something that works particularly well for many students.
  • Deep house – An unconventional choice, but something that has worked for me and several other students we interviewed. Deep house has very little variation, the beats are hypnotic, and the rhythms are soothing.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. What works for one student, might not work for someone else. So, feel free to experiment with different albums, playlists, and artists to see what works best for your study routine.

Make your choices before the learning sessions

You have probably heard that some of the most high-performing individuals in the world consciously limit their daily choices. This is a great strategy for avoiding decision fatigue as much as possible.

Decision fatigue is the last thing you want when engaging in mentally demanding work such as studying. Thus, if you are planning on studying with background music playing, choose your music well in advance. Preferably the day before your learning session.

Take regular breaks

You can use the stopping of music as a cue for a study break. For example, prepare separate playlists for your learning sessions. When one playlist is finished, take a break.

Since your brain has learned to associate music with studying, you will find it that much easier to relax and switch off when the music stops.

When you resume learning, your mind will be fully refreshed and ready to absorb new information.

Conclusion

The usefulness of background music for studying depends on many variables. It all comes down to the specific music listened to, what you are studying, and the environment where you study.

Of course, the personality and the study habits of a given student are also important.

Everyone has different preferences, so you will need to experiment with what works for you. Some people may find that listening to music while studying helps them focus more and retain information better. Others will do better in silence without any noise at all.

The scientific evidence is also inconclusive. Some studies show that music can help improve attention and memory, while other studies find no benefits for listening to music while studying.

If you do decide to experiment with having background music on while studying, there are some key takeaways to consider.

For one, anything with lyrics should be avoided. The same goes for music that is too loud and intense or too progressive. Instead, opt for music that is repetitive and classically pleasant.

Also, be sure to prepare your playlists or streams BEFORE starting studying. Choosing songs while engaging with your studies is a surefire formula for throwing your brain off the loop and hurting your concentration levels.