Should I try listening to music while studying? Will it boost my concentration and protect from unwanted noises, or, on the contrary, are there only disadvantages for my focus? Although these questions have been sitting on the agenda for a while, now they are relevant as never. College students are outside of their habitual learning environments like libraries, co-working spaces, university halls, or coffee shops. All these places came not only with comfortable desks, caramel lattes, and occasional chats with friends. Each site is full of specific noises and background music that could have been helpful for our learning and concentration. At home, on the contrary, we struggle with unwanted sounds, lack of personal space, and poor focus. Is music an answer to these pains?
We already know a good deal about the positive effects of music on our mood, healing, and calming anxieties (yet there is still much more to discover). But can music or background sounds be combined with your studies or used as a concentration booster? It is a ubiquitous habit of listening to music while working, but what is the scientific opinion about it? Here we will review the latest research stands concerning the effects of music and sounds on our learning and memory. In the end, some advice awaits you on what kind of music to have in the background. Tune up!
The effects of background music on our cognition and other activities have been actively discussed in the fields of neuroscience and learning. However, scientists are still far from compiling overarching guidelines for whether one should listen to music or certain noises when studying or not.
The benefits of listening to music while studying
The discussion mainly spins around two theories: the so-called Mozart effect and the arousal-mood hypothesis. The Mozart effect is extremely luring: the theory states that listening to classical music when studying can directly increase your cognitive abilities. The arousal-mood hypothesis argues for a mediatory role of music. In a nutshell: though the music does not affect your learning capacities directly, specific tunes make you feel better, which in turn sharpens your cognition and memory.
It is also proven that ambient noises can boost our cognition and creativity as well as increase your memorization. This statement is especially true for nature sounds of low or medium loudness.
On the other hand, several studies suggested that moderately noisy environments can push us outside of our comfort zones and actually boost our creativity and abstract thinking. This is precisely why so many of us unconsciously preferred study sessions in the coffee shop. According to this hypothesis, recreating some relatively noisy background in your room during a study session should be beneficial.
Some researchers assume that listening to music before a study session is immensely helpful, especially if the tune is energetic, and you’re even prone to dancing. The sounds can boost your concentration and cheer you up! While listening to your favorite power tune, move around or dance for a bit to double the positive effect on your health and studying abilities. Shake it like Hugh Grant!
Other researchers are not that optimistic about the incredible effects of music: their trials have shown that there is no influence on cognitive functions whatsoever. It means, however, that studying with music is not bad either!
“We assume that listening to music does not hamper the accomplishment of various tasks in daily life. This is at least true for tasks of moderate difficulty.”Burkhard et al., 2018
This suggestion is though only valid for relatively easy tasks, so you might not want to solve some logarithmic functions while listening to Dua Lipa because…
The disadvantages of studying with music
… there are also tons of studies that disproved both the Mozart effect and the arousal-mood hypothesis. And college students were the core trial group in these studies.
The first problem is familiar for most of us — deconcentration. When learning from textbook with the music on, we start listening to lyrics instead of paying attention to the book itself. The process of music shifting our focus is called “a seductive detail”. On the contrary, one study in which participants were learning German words while listening to songs with German lyrics showed that such an environment did not prevent them from succeeding in verbal assignments. So, as you see — the research stands are still controversial.
Not only losing focus while studying can be a problem, but also the worsening of one’s working memory. Unlike our long-term memory, working memory has a limited capacity, despite being crucial for processing any information. To succeed in learning, one should keep their working memory only for the task in question.
“Listening to background music while learning requires additional cognitive capacity that could otherwise be invested into the learning process.”Lehmann and Seufert, 2017
You should also be aware that very loud music can have harmful effects on our creative capacities. At the same time, some tasks yield better results when completed in total silence.
What to listen to?
As you have guessed, we don’t always talk about music per se but also about different noises (for example, coffee shop noises). If the influence (either good or bad) of various tunes on our cognition is controversial, noises can work excellent for masking some unwanted sounds in your room. Here is when white noise comes to the foreground. “White noise is a type of noise that is produced by combining sounds of all different frequencies together,” — HowStuffWorks explains us. This hissy sound is invaluable when masking unwanted noises. It is a perfect background “tune” for those who want to eliminate possible adverse effects of music with lyrics on your memory and concentration. There are other “colorful” noises, among which the brown noise (actually, Brownian) is the most relaxing and pleasant.
Noisli has a broad range of sounds, depending on your current needs, including some peaceful nature music. If you miss busy coffee shop sounds, use Coffitivity. With this tool, you can choose whether you want some “scholarly sounds” or a “lunchtime rush” as if you’ve never left the campus! There are tons of apps out there with these and other kind of sounds — experiment with what suits you best.
It’s good to remember that listening to music does not help you learn better per se. Otherwise, it can create a suitable background that boosts better learning or functions as a relaxant (or energizer) during your breaks. It depends on your mood, type of work, and your musical preferences, obviously. Although research is not clear in this respect, avoid loud music with lyrics and choose some instrumental tunes, pure nature sounds, or white noise. Tasks that require extreme concentration will do better in complete silence.
However, if you can’t ensure the silence of your current working environment — switch on some background music that we’ve advised above. If you are a lucky owner of noise-canceling headphones, put them on! Even if Mozart can’t make us study better, listening to his piano concertos is much better than being exposed to unexpected sounds or conversations in your household.
Below are three recent studies referenced in this article. They are totally worth reading if you want to dig into this fascinating topic.
Burkhard, Anja et al. “The Effect of Background Music on Inhibitory Functions: An ERP Study.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 293. 23 Jul. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00293.
Lehmann, Janina A M, and Tina Seufert. “The Influence of Background Music on Learning in the Light of Different Theoretical Perspectives and the Role of Working Memory Capacity.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 8 1902. 31 Oct. 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01902
Mehta, Ravi, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema. “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition.” Journal of Consumer Research 39, no. 4 (2012): 784-99. doi:10.1086/665048.