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Does Music Help You Study? The Science Behind Sound and Learning

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Does music help you study: A student studies while listening to his headphones

Some A+ students credit their strong memory to study music while others say they prefer silence. Many people also refer to the Mozart effect, which claims that listening to classical music can increase the retention of information for better studying and stronger brainpower.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of talk about what makes us smarter. This leaves many high school and college students wondering: Does music help you study? Read on to learn the science behind music, memory retention, and what really helps us learn.

The Role of Music in Learning

Music has long been correlated with learning. Whether you’re using headphones at the library or listening to background noise as a class, many people see music as an essential component of a successful study session.

There's an ongoing debate about the link between music and learning, and many studies offer conflicting advice. For example, one study that tested 81 college students states that there was no clear connection between memory retention and music when comparing the groups that studied with music and the groups that studied with silence. Specifically, there was no recall performance or memory improvement in the group that listened to music.

However, the study did find a direct correlation between working memory capacity and background music. “The higher the learners’ working memory capacity, the better they learned with background music,” say the study’s authors, Janina A. M. Lehmann and Tina Seufert at Germany’s Ulm University.

Other people believe that music plays a role in learning simply because it boosts mood, and someone in a good mood is more likely to stay open-minded when learning new material.

But, what else does science say about music and memory, and why do we associate the two?

The Science of Study Music and Memory

Much of what popular culture understands about music and memory can be attributed to a 1993 intelligence study. In this trial, psychologist Francis Rauscher exposed 36 college students to 10 minutes of Mozart’s classical music. Then, they took a spatial reasoning test. Students also took the test after listening to silence and listening to a monotone voice speaking.

The results showed that students scored considerably higher on the test after listening to Mozart. Yet these benefits only lasted 10-15 minutes, and only supported a specific area of learning rather than general intelligence. Still, this study earned renowned fame and helped inspire “the Mozart effect” where people believe that they’re made smarter by listening to Mozart.

Whether or not you believe in the power of Mozart, other science still points to a positive correlation between listening to music and retaining information. Physicians at Johns Hopkins explain that music boosts brain activity and keeps it healthy because it requires the brain to process and compute notes. Music has also been shown to improve sleep, alertness, and memory. It can also decrease blood pressure and promote overall increases in mood.

Musical skills have also been shown to increase emotional bonds between people. Specifically, research shows that musical skills “played a major role early in the evolution of human intellect” because they allowed human societies to transform, say neurobiologists. Music allowed information to be transmitted across generations, which enabled strong social and societal bonds that promoted human development.

All of these positive effects can help a person retain information better, even if they aren’t directly correlated to information retention.

What Music Is Best for Studying?

Does music help you study: A student reviews information with a tutor

It’s clear that music can be helpful for memory and mood, but what type of music is best? While certain types of music have been traditionally associated with studying, it all depends on personal preference. Here’s a look at the most common study music genres, plus a handful of top-rated playlists to try for your next long study session.

Study Music Spotify Playlists

Classical music is the most typical genre that students listen to when studying. This is in part due to the Mozart effect, but also because classical music is associated with intelligence, class, and academia.

The following Spotify playlists include traditional study backdrop tunes from Beethoven and Bach, as well as music from contemporary artists:

White noise and natural sounds are also popular for studying. Since these noises can soothe the mind and promote calm, they’re known to increase focus and make it easier to study more information in less time.

These nature sounds and background noises can help you get in the right mental zone for studying:

Lastly, hip-hop and lo-fi electronic music can help some people stay alert and get to work. If you tend to listen to these genres in daily life when you’re not studying, they might help you stay focused.

These are the most popular Spotify playlists featuring hip tunes and ambient beats:

These playlists are a great place to start when searching for study music, but feel free to explore the “study,” “focus,” and “productivity” genres on Spotify for even more options.

Music To Avoid When Studying

Does music help you study: A smiling girl listens to her headphones

There’s no clear evidence that any type of music is particularly bad for you when studying. After all, the negative effects of music on people vary widely and depend largely on a person’s preferences and background. However, there are a few rules of thumb to follow.

For one, consider whether or not you prefer words with music. If you’re studying a new language or reading through texts, music with words could be distracting. Yet, if you’re working through spatial reasoning problems or computing math, words could be helpful for keeping you focused on the task at hand.

Research does show that music without lyrics is more helpful for studying, as the cognitive abilities required to process lyrics may take away from the cognitive attention needed to process new information while studying.

"If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn't matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension," explains Dr. Nick Penham, a researcher who studied the relationship between music and memory.

He says that both reading a textbook and listening to music with lyrics require the use of semantic information. Doing both at the same time decreases your cognitive ability on both tasks. Keep this in mind, but test out different music styles to see what works best for you.

So, Does Music Help You Study?

Evidence from many fields of study, including psychology, health sciences, and biology suggest that music and peaceful background noise can aid in memory retention. At the same time, many studies show that music and memory aren’t correlated and that the wrong music can even interfere with memory retention.

While the advice is conflicting, there’s one way to find out what’s best for you: test it out. Listen to different types of music that you enjoy while studying to see if it increases your focus and improves your test performance. Since we all have different tastes and preferences, the music that helps you study all depends on what kind of music you like and how it makes you feel.