MUSIC AND STUDYING: HELPFUL OR NOT?
Many people love listening to quiet, soothing music while they study. They claim it makes the study time more enjoyable and even helps them focus and stay on task. But is music helpful for learning? Or is the growing habit of popping in earbuds while studying doing more harm than good for students?
IS MUSIC A DISTRACTION WHILE STUDYING?
Many people have heard about the “Mozart effect,” or the supposed phenomenon that listening to Mozart and other classical or instrumental music can make you smarter. And while participants in one study1 did better on a series of tasks after listening to Mozart for about 15 minutes, it’s important to note that they weren’t listening to the music while doing the task—only before the task.
So is music a distraction while studying? Since the Mozart study took place, more research2 has shown that listening to music while studying can actually decrease academic performance. In one study,3 researchers found that silence is necessary for developing new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. That’s not to say that music is never okay, but if noise and distraction persist too often, it can hamper your brain’s ability to function properly.
THE EFFECTS OF MUSIC WHILE STUDYING
Since the human brain can never truly multitask,4 listening to music takes up some of the brain’s ability to process, and it can’t put as much effort toward retaining information relevant to the subject matter. Listening to music during study time can make students less efficient,5 too, so they may spend longer finishing a task than students who study in silence.
Music can have a positive impact on mood,6 so students who are really feeling down in the dumps while studying may get a much-needed boost by listening to their favorite song. But it’s probably best to take a break from studying to listen to the music, then turn it off when it’s time to jump back into the task at hand.
DOES LISTENING TO MUSIC DISTRACT YOU FROM STUDYING?
Many students won’t want to hear it, but yes, listening to music does distract you from studying. Despite the popular “Mozart effect” study, most research shows that listening to music while studying is more of a distraction and a potential hindrance than it is helpful.
Music can distract us
On the other hand, music can be a distraction – under certain circumstances.
When you study, you’re using your “working memory” – that means you are holding and manipulating several bits of information in your head at once.
The research is fairly clear that when there’s music in the background, and especially music with vocals, our working memory gets worse.
Likely as a result, reading comprehension decreases when people listen to music with lyrics. Music also appears to be more distracting for people who are introverts than for people who are extroverts, perhaps because introverts are more easily overstimulated.
Some clever work by an Australia-based researcher called Bill Thompson and his colleagues aimed to figure out the relative effect of these two competing factors - mood and distraction.
They had participants do a fairly demanding comprehension task, and listen to classical music that was either slow or fast, and which was either soft or loud.
They found the only time there was any real decrease in performance was when people were listening to music that was both fast and loud (that is, at about the speed of Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, at about the volume of a vacuum cleaner).
But while that caused a decrease in performance, it wasn’t actually that big a decrease. And other similar research also failed to find large differences.
So… can I listen to music while studying or not?
To sum up: research suggest it’s probably fine to listen to music while you’re studying - with some caveats.
It’s better if:
- it puts you in a good mood
- it’s not too fast or too loud
- it’s less wordy (and hip-hop, where the words are rapped rather than sung, is likely to be even more distracting)
- you’re not too introverted.
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