At one point in time or another, you’ve probably heard one of these two things:
You’ve probably also noticed that these two things are completely contradictory. So, this begs the question: should you listen to music while you study? Some people may say that there is no right answer—it’s simply a matter of preference. Believe it or not, however, the scientific community has been concerned with this question for more than two decades.
In 1993, the scientific journal Nature published a study which proposed that listening to classical music, such as the works of Mozart, would enhance human spatial reasoning. It was even a popular misconception that regularly enjoying classical music would quite literally make a person more intelligent. This led to the term "Mozart effect," which has since come to describe the supposed positive effect classical music has on the brain.
The study showed that students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart’s double piano sonata, K448, demonstrated better spatial awareness in test situations. Compared to test subjects who listened to other sounds or types of music in this time, the ones who had listened to music were more adequately able to perform spatial-temporal activities such as paper cutting and folding procedures.
One theory put forth, and widely accepted is that classical music stimulates areas of the brain that are also associated with spatial-temporal tasks, including the prefrontal cortex and superior temporal gyrus. Enhanced synchrony in the firing pattern of neurons in these areas shortly after enjoying a piano sonata which provides a temporary enhancement of spatial reasoning. Research also suggested that exposure to classical music over a consistent period of time can contribute to better spatial thinking in the long-term, particularly in children, who have greater neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change and develop throughout life).
So, what does that have to do with studying?
To put it bluntly, not much. Listening to classical music, or any music does not directly stimulate any part of your brain that might make you more productive, efficient, or intelligent. Unless your homework involves origami or a Rubik’s cube, it’s unlikely you will experience any bursts of genius if you have Mozart playing in the background. However, there are certainly merits to studying with music and studying without—and the type of music matters, too. Let’s compare.
Benefits of Studying with Music
Music can make you happier. Even though it won’t make you better at studying, listening to music you enjoy can trigger the release of dopamine, and people tend to be more efficient when they are in a good mood. Memory formation is also enhanced when you are happy, making you more likely to remember the material you need.
Music can make you more relaxed. Research has also shown that listening to music can help lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and anxiety. A better state of mind allows people to retain information more effectively.
Disadvantages of Studying with Music
You can be distracted. Listening to music with lyrics can often be distracting and actually reduce the amount of information you retain. Loud music is also particularly distracting when students are reading or writing.
You can become reliant on music. Believe it or not, if you get used to studying with music, the sound becomes a stimulant for information retrieval. If you have to take a test in silence, you are less likely to be able to remember the things you studied while listening to music.
What kind of Music should I Listen To?
Most experts would suggest sticking to classical because the melodies and tempo can help put you in an optimal condition for studying. However, if you’re not a fan of classical music, here are a few alternatives:
If possible, you should avoid loud, emotional music when studying. Your own mood can be influenced by emotional songs, and loud music can "drown out" your thoughts and make it difficult for you to focus. And as mentioned before, avoid lyrics, because when you are listening to music with lyrics while studying, you are actually multitasking, and have been proven to be less efficient.
More Tips for Studying with Music
In short; if you’re listening to music (preferably without lyrics) that makes you happy, listen away! If it’s making you sad, maybe save it for the end of the day.