Can music help you study?

Do you listen to music while you study? Some people swear by it, others can’t stand it. What does science say?

Over the years, several research groups have studied how music affects learning or whether music can help you concentrate. These studies are all different: they look at different types of music, different types of studying, different test subjects, and they take different measurements.

In this post, I’ll round up some of the ones that show a positive or neutral effect of music on studying. In the next post, they’ll be more negative or neutral. So keep in mind that, like most articles about scientific studies, one post does not cover all aspects of the topic.

Make music part of the studying process

One type of studying involves memorizing things and later recalling them. That’s how you would study lists of vocabulary words, or biology or history facts, for example. In one study from earlier this year, researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany tested whether it matters in which way you are presented with the information that you need to remember. Is there a difference between reading text, hearing spoken word, or hearing a song? The researchers, Janina Lehmann and Tina Seufert, discovered that it was easiest to memorize text if you read it, but that people who heard it as a song were better able to comprehend the text.

This is the idea behind educational songs. By having students sing about the material they’re studying, they’re connecting with it in a more engaged way. This method is used in language education, but also for subjects that rely less on memorization and more on understanding, such as science.

But what if the music is not related to the material that’s being studied? Can music help you concentrate?

Background music while studying

When the music you’re listening to isn’t relevant to the material you’re studying, your brain is essentially doing two separate tasks: studying and listening to music. The music you’re listening to can change your mood, which can make studying easier if you enjoy the music, but it also has the ability to distract you from your work. Lehmann and Seufert, the same researchers who studied the difference between reading a text or hearing it as music (mentioned above) also investigated the role of background music.

They recruited 81 volunteers (all university students) and made half of them listen to music while studying, while the other half studied in silence. The researchers wanted to study how music affects memory, but they didn’t really find a difference in how well either group was able to memorize what they studied. That suggests background music didn’t have much of an effect on this group. But they did see a correlation between how well the subjects understood what they learned: Those students who had a good working memory were better able to learn while music was on in the background. The researchers think this is because music formed more of a distraction for the other participants.

The arousal-mood hypothesis

One of the theories why some people prefer having music on in the background is the “arousal-mood hypothesis”. This is the idea that listening to fast-paced, upbeat music improves someone’s ability of solving a task. The researchers who first tested this hypothesis used the same Mozart sonata in either a faster or slower tempo, and in a major or minor key, so that all study participants heard the same piece of music, but with different characteristics. They found that the faster, major-key version of the piece had a positive effect on solving a spatial task. Another study also found an effect of happy music on creative problem solving. This is another aspect of how music affects learning: by changing the way we feel while we study.

Is there a Mozart effect?

In the experiment above, the researchers chose a Mozart piano piece, specifically to control for the so-called “Mozart effect”. This is the idea that listening to Mozart makes solving spatial tasks easier. The origin of this theory is a very short research paper from 1993, which studied only 36 subjects (all university students) and didn’t compare Mozart to any other composer. The subjects either listened to the Mozart piece, to a relaxation tape, or to nothing at all. The fact that the students who listened to music did a bit better than the others in this very small study does not say anything about the power of Mozart’s music in particular — it just happened to be the music the researchers chose for their music sample.

But the study took on a life of its own. Without actually reading the original paper, people picked up on it, changed the story, and completely overhyped it, to the point where some people believed that “listening to Mozart makes babies smarter”. Those broad interpretations all came from wildly exaggerated interpretations of one very small study. So, no, listening to Mozart will NOT make you smarter. It’s just that listening to happy, upbeat music may make certain tasks a bit easier.

Confused by all the conflicting messages? Still not sure whether listening to music makes studying easier? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, which will make things even more complicated…