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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly About Studying with Music

Listening to music while studying has a million different effects on your performance — from improving productivity to minimizing depression.

But not all of them are good...

Here's the good, the bad and the ugly about studying with music.

the good and bad about studying with music

The Good

1. Listening to Music While Studying Improves Productivity

According to ACT Test-Prep expert Kelly Roell, music improves your mood and increases positive feelings. These are directly related to productivity. Additionally, there are several studies showing that work productivity is significantly higher when listening to music.

That is quite significant!

A lot of students use music as a motivational tool to get started, and now there's research showing that it improves productivity.

It is worth noting that listening to music is much better while going over material you already know. Learning something for the very first time requires great effort. The second time you go over the material, however, it becomes much easier.

Since music can interfere with learning specific information (see below), we recommend you study the material the first time without music, and then go over the material at a subsequent time with music.

2. Increases Your Study Period and Improves Creativity

Research has shown that music can help you study and perform for longer periods of time without losing focus. This is particularly true for tasks that involve creative input.

Background music can be used to initiate internal processing and facilitate creativity. Playing reflective music during times of creative self-study allows you to maintain attention for longer periods of time compared to doing so with no music.

In one study, students were able to do twice as much work with music playing than without it.

The tempo and rhythmic patterns of music can help you maintain your attention. It can also help keep you alert when feeling drowsy.

Baroque pieces ranging between 55 and 80 beats per minute can help you concentrate and keep a steady focus while studying by helping you reach the alpha wave brain state.

3. Studying with Music Helps Block Out Noise

One of the most useful benefits of playing music while studying is the ability to be able to block out noise.

Students are often unable to find a quiet environment for studying. They are forced with being subjected to the everyday sounds that occur around them.

Examples of such sounds include voices, conversations, televisions, cars, footsteps, and even your own breathing.

Background noise like this can be very distracting for students trying to focus.

Playing music while studying helps block out this type of background noise. Replacing the unpredictable distractions with predictable and rhythmic music significantly improves the ability to remain focused.

The key difference here is predictability.

4. Absorbing More Information By Listening to Classical Music

Several well-known studies have been conducted to examine the effects of classical music on your mind when learning, studying or taking tests.

There has been a lot of controversy about the so-called Mozart effect. The Mozart effect refers to the increase in cognitive ability to perform certain tasks shortly after listening to classical music.

After listening to Mozart, subjects showed an enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning for about 10-12 minutes.

That's it?

Well, yes. That's it for the Mozart effect. It's an interesting phenomenon, but of little practical value to most of us. What is more valuable, however, is that studying while listening to classical music can help you retain more information afterward.

One study found that students who attended a lecture with classical music playing in the background scored significantly higher than students who attended the same lecture, but without music.

While various parties have different opinions on the effects of music, most agree that it does have the potential to stimulate your thinking.

Classical music is often very relaxing for many students, as many classical pieces are mellow and serene compared to most popular music. This relaxed state of mind allows you to learn more in addition to retaining more information.

You might also like: The Best Headphones for Classical Music

5. Listen to Alpha Waves

Study music does not have to involve the newest upbeat songs. A good way to get the most out of your headphones is to listen to tranquil tunes without the distraction that comes along with lyrics.

Some people choose to utilize alpha wave audio to calm their minds and allow them to study peacefully.

Alpha waves are brain waves in the frequency range of 8 to 12 Hz, and they are usually present during alert relaxation. Alpha waves naturally occur when calm, and they can also initiate relaxation in stressed individuals.

Students tend to learn the most when in an optimal state of mind. Not too relaxed. Not too aroused. This type of audio can help students reach that state.

6. Avoiding Outside Distractions

Listening to music during study time can also help avoid outside distractions.

Some students dislike complete silence but are uncomfortable with noisy surroundings. Some students get distracted even upon seeing another person walk into the room. This can make it difficult to get back into the study pattern before the distraction was presented.

Music can help you stay in the proper mindset throughout the study period as you're less likely to take notice of the other factors in your environment.

According to a study by scientists at the University College London, music during study time is beneficial compared to studying among random background noise.

7. Music Helps Minimizing Depression

Research shows that music has many positive effects prior to performing intelligence-related tasks such as improving memory, improving attention and helping mental math ability. Music has also been shown to help alleviate depression and anxiety.

The academic performance takes a toll on anyone seriously concerned about their future, but the resulting stress and anxiety can actually contribute to a decline in performance. If worry about doing well is causing you trouble while studying, music may help relieve some of the additional stress.

8. Studying with Music Helps Control Your Mood

Music is also helpful for keeping your mood in control and keeping you excited while studying. Listening to music before or during study tasks engages what is referred to as the “arousal and mood effect.”

Participating in enjoyable activities, such as listening to upbeat or exciting music, before studying can create a positive effect on performance. Improved performance comes from exposure to your preference of sound before becoming engaged in work. Moderate levels of arousal are needed for studying efficiently, and music can help achieve this.

9. Reduce Stress

One of the hardest aspects of being a college student is being away from all things related to home such as your family, your house and your typical lifestyle.

Certain sounds may be associated with memories from back home, and listening to familiar music that you listen to in your home surroundings can comfort you when feeling worried. Feeling uneasy far away from your comfort zone makes it harder to stay focused when you need to concentrate on an important curriculum.

Along with many other emotionally taxing situations, music has been shown to reduce the overall stress levels for students. Research has proven that music can improve the body's immune system function on top of aiding stress. Listening to music has also been shown to be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety in some situations.

The Bad

1. It Is Detrimental for the Musically Inclined

Those with a gift for or knowledge of music will find it much harder to focus on studying while also absorbing the music.

For some students, such as those studying music education, listening while trying to learn is nearly impossible as the music becomes the main concern. They end up focusing on the music more than their work as they find themselves analyzing each musical piece layer by layer.

If you're one of those types, you'll find it extremely difficult to listen to music casually no matter what type it is.

Those with genuine musical training are often more likely to take note of the structure of the music along with factors such as the rhythm, timbre or arrangement instead of studying.

You might also like: The 7 Best Studio Headphones

2. The Wrong Music Can Be Harmful

Just like music with or without lyrics can have a disadvantage or a benefit on your studying, the genre or style of music will also determine whether it helps or hurts you.

Listening to the wrong style of music can significantly decrease your level of concentration when studying. You can listen to hyper fast-tempo music or calm and slow tunes. The type of music you prefer and the benefit or hindrance it has on you will depend on your own needs when studying or taking tests. It's best to be calm and relaxed when going over important material, but you also need to be alert enough to focus.

The FastWeb has a list of 10 criteria that your playlist should follow, as well as some recommended tracks.

3. It Promotes Context-Dependent Learning

Context-dependent learning is a phenomenon in which the conditions present when learning material should be duplicated when recalling the material.

Studies show that it's easier to recall important information in the same conditions in which you learn it. This means the information you learn or memorize in the presence of music will be harder to recall without the same music used to study it.

In a study published in the American Journal of Psychology, experiments demonstrated how background music induces context-dependent memory.

In the experiments, a list of words was presented with instrumental music or white noise in the background. In a test of recall 48 hours later, performance was better if the background noise was the same instead of removed or changed to a different sound.

If learning the material took place among quiet background conditions, recall was the same whether the subsequent testing took place among quiet, musical or white noise background sounds. This implies that context-dependent memory caused by the sounds in your environment is the beneficial result of contextual cues rather than a harmful effect of distractions caused by new background sounds upon recalling material when testing.

The Ugly

1. Hinders Reading Comprehension

Not all music is created equal, and those songs that include lyrics are much more of a problem when it comes to studying.

It's important to pay close attention to the music you choose for studying in order to avoid lyrics when doing language based work. Research has proven that music containing lyrics can interfere with your reading comprehension in addition to your writing ability.

According to Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University, lyrical music is likely to have problematic effects when reading or writing but less of an effect on math (excluding word problems).

2. Requires Multi-Tasking

One of the disadvantages of studying with music is the likelihood that you'll be distracted by the song. Many students feel that listening to music when studying is counterproductive as they end up paying more attention to the music than the material itself.

Playing music while studying can divide your attention to the point that you won't even be able to learn or retain the material as thoroughly as you need to. If you hear a particular song, you're liable to think about other times and places you've heard the song or other songs by the same entertainer.

Enjoying music is never done completely passively, and this means there is less of your brain power being allocated to the necessary task of studying. Studies have examined the detrimental effects of multi-tasking, and a 2009 Stanford study of college students showed they performed horribly when required to multi-task. Even those that do it on a regular basis use their brains less effectively in general.

3. Music Interferes With Serial-Recall Tasks

Serial recall tasks involve remembering items in a specific order. A study at the University of Wales examined how background music affected students' ability to complete serial recall.

Participants were subjected to a quiet environment, one with “steady state” speech (hearing the same word repeated) or one with “changing state” speech (hearing a variety of words). Also included were environments with both liked and disliked music based on participant preferences.

Changing state speech is somewhat similar to studying while listening to someone engage in conversation while a steady state is similar to doing so with repetitive background noise such as a refrigerator.

The results showed no significant difference between scores with liked music, disliked music and changing state speech situations. Hearing the music (whether it was enjoyable or not) was just as distracting as hearing someone speaking. Scores were much higher for students in the quiet or steady state speech environments.

Now it's your turn

Now I want to hear from you:

Do you listen to music while studying?​

Leave a quick comment below, and let us know.

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