Should you listen to music while studying?
You’re cramming for an exam or finishing a paper that’s due tomorrow while listening to music.
It may be more pleasant to study with the Beatles or Cozy Danger keeping you company, and plenty has been written about how listening to music stimulates different parts of the brain. But if your favorite tunes wake up your senses and make homework less odious, do they also impede your ability to learn?
They can, according to Elizabeth Axford, an online instructor in the University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences. “The jury is still out on a definitive answer,” she says. “Based on everything I’ve read, it really depends on the individual. Some students can study effectively with music playing, while others are distracted by any outside stimulus.”
According to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, students who studied with music playing had lower average tests scores than those who didn’t. But the institute also found that the scores varied depending on whether the student routinely played music while studying and by the type of music played.
Another, more conclusive, study by the University of Wales focused on that last detail: the effect of different types of music on a student’s concentration. Students were asked to recall a series of sounds presented in a specific order in different environments, including absolute quiet, with music they liked playing in the background and with music they didn’t like.
Although the results showed no significant difference in the test scores of students who listened to music they liked and students who heard music they didn’t enjoy, those who studied in silence scored significantly higher than students in both other groups. But the study used only music with vocals for the comparison, something Axford says can make a difference.
“Many of my students have told me that they listen to classical music while they study,” Axford says, pointing to the so-called Mozart Effect, a set of research results that asserts listening to classical music provides short-term enhancement of mental tasks — including memorization — known as “spatial-temporal reasoning.”
A USA Today story last September reported that listening to music with lyrics is an especially bad idea when studying languages, because lyrics affect the same parts of the brain that comprehend language. “You think you’re focused on your Spanish lesson,” Axford says, “but your brain is also hearing — and is distracted by — the words to the song playing in the background.”
Because study results and student preferences vary widely, Axford recommends that you take a “trial-and-error approach” to determine the best studying environment for you. “If you’re someone who excels at multitasking and does better with homework while there’s a music file playing,” she notes, “then by all means, continue. Otherwise, seek a quiet place with no distraction when you’re studying.”