Many people find music helps them concentrate while studying and working. Others find it hard to focus with any background noise at all.
Music offers a lot of benefits, including:
But not everyone agrees that music improves a study session. So what’s the deal — does it help or not?
Music doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, so the answer is not just a straightforward “yes” or “no.”
Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of studying with music and get some tips for making the most out of your study playlist.
It would be fantastic if you could put on a playlist or song that could help you knock out a problem set or memorize all those dates for your history final, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, music isn’t quite that powerful. It mostly helps in indirect ways, but those benefits can still make a big difference.
It reduces stress and improves your mood
Music doesn’t just motivate you. It can also help reduce stress and promote a more positive mindset.
In a 2013 study, 60 female volunteers carried out a psychological stress test while listening to relaxing music, sounds of rippling water, or no particular sound. Results suggested that listening to relaxing music makes a physical difference to the way people respond psychologically and physically — in terms of hormone response — under stress. However, the picture is complex, and more studies are needed.
In a 2021 study, patients in ICU said they felt less pain and anxiety after listening to music for 30 minutes than before.
Research suggests that a good mood generally improves your learning outcomes. You’ll likely have more success with studying and learning new material when you’re feeling good.
Studying can be stressful, especially when you don’t entirely understand the subject material. If you feel overwhelmed or upset, putting on some music can help you relax and work more effectively.
It can motivate you
If you’ve ever grappled with a long, exhausting night of homework, your resolve to keep studying may have started to flag long before you finished.
Perhaps you promised yourself a reward in order to get through the study session, such as the latest episode of a show you like or your favorite takeout meal.
Research from 2019 suggests music can activate the same reward centers in your brain as other things you enjoy. Rewarding yourself with your favorite music can provide the motivation you need to learn new information.
If you prefer music that doesn’t work well for studying (more on that below), listening to your favorite songs during study breaks could motivate you to study harder.
It can increase focus
According to a 2007 study, music — classical music, specifically — can help your brain absorb and interpret new information more easily.
Your brain processes the abundance of information it receives from the world around you by separating it into smaller segments.
The researchers found evidence to suggest that music can engage your brain in such a way that it trains it to pay better attention to events and make predictions about what might happen.
How does this help you study? Well, if you struggle to make sense of new material, listening to music could make this process easier.
You can also link the ability to make better predictions about events to reasoning skills.
Improved reasoning abilities won’t help you pull answers out of thin air come exam time. But you could notice a difference in your ability to reason your way to these answers based on the information you do have.
Other research also supports music as a possible method of improving focus.
It could help you memorize new information
According to a 2014 study, listening to classical music seemed to help older adults perform better on memory and processing tasks.
These findings suggest certain types of music can help boost memorization abilities and other cognitive functions.
Music helps stimulate your brain, similar to the way exercise helps stimulate your body.
The more you exercise your muscles, the stronger they become, right? Giving your brain a cognitive workout could help strengthen it in a similar fashion.
Not everyone finds music helpful for tasks that require concentration.
It can distract you
An important part of music’s impact lies in its power to distract.
When you feel sad or stressed, distracting yourself with your favorite tunes can help lift your spirits.
But distraction probably isn’t what you’re looking for when you need to hit the books.
If you’re trying to argue your position in a term paper or solve a difficult calculus equation, music that’s too loud or fast might just interrupt your thoughts and hinder your process.
It can have a negative impact on working memory
Working memory refers to the information you use for problem-solving, learning, and other cognitive tasks.
You use working memory when trying to remember:
- items on a list
- steps for solving a math problem
- a sequence of events
Most people can work with a few pieces of information at a time. A high working memory capacity means you can handle more material.
Research suggests, however, that listening to music can reduce working memory capacity.
If you already have a hard time manipulating multiple pieces of information, listening to music could make this process even more challenging.
It can lower reading comprehension
Certain types of music — including music with lyrics and instrumental music that is fast and loud — can make it harder to understand and absorb reading material.
Whether you’re looking at an evening of Victorian literature or some one-on-one time with your biology textbook, soft classical music with a slow tempo may be a better choice.
Listening to music while you study or work doesn’t always make you less productive or efficient.
If you prefer to study with music, there’s no need to give it up. Keeping these tips in mind can help you find the most helpful music for work and study:
- Avoid music with lyrics. Any music that has lyrics in a language you understand will probably prove more distracting than helpful.
- Choose slow, instrumental music. Existing research generally focuses on classical music, but if you don’t enjoy this genre, you could also consider soft electronic, space, or ambient — the kind you might hear at a spa or while getting a massage.
- Avoid surprising or experimental music. Music that changes abruptly or lacks a fixed rhythm can leave you guessing about what to expect. This can distract your brain and keep you from focusing on your work.
- Keep the volume low. Study music should stay at a background volume. If it’s too loud, it could disrupt your thinking process.
- Stick to songs you don’t have strong feelings about. Listening to music you either love or hate can affect your ability to concentrate.
- Stream commercial-free music, if possible. Picture this: You’re listening to your instrumental Pandora station when a toilet paper commercial cuts in, annoying you and derailing your train of thought. Enough said.
Is music good while studying?
Some research suggests that music can help reduce stress during an academic task and that it may help with memory and processing during tasks that require thinking. However, this may depend on the type of music and the individual.
What type of music is good to study with?
The best type will depend on the individual. There is evidence that classical symphonies or relaxing music are a good choice for managing stress, but also that upbeat music might boost a person’s thinking processes. Instrumental music may be more suitable than songs with lyrics, as the lyrics can be distracting.
When is it bad to listen to music while studying?
Each person can decide if it suits them to listen to music while studying or not and which type of music is best. Types of music that may not be helpful include songs, fast and loud music, and music that provokes strong feelings in the listener.
Music can improve your mood and help you feel more motivated to tackle important tasks, but it doesn’t always work as a study tool.
Even people who love music might find it less than helpful when trying to concentrate.
Choosing music carefully can help you maximize its benefits, but if you still struggle to focus, it may help to consider white noise or other audio options instead.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.