A poll taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53% of students in the age range of 12-17 perform other activities while studying. 87% of these multi-taskers admitted to simultaneously listening to music while they study. These findings aren’t unique to these students. Students all over the world are opening iTunes at the same time that they open a book.
In my first semester of engineering, I found myself listening to music a lot while studying. Then I got my midterm marks back and decided that listening to music while studying was not something that I was going to do regularly.
However, I recently came across the concept of the “Mozart Effect”. The “Mozart Effect” was popularized by a study performed in 1993. The study had concluded that students had better spatial-reasoning skills after listening to Mozart. Their spatial-reasoning was "measured by various tests derived from the Stanford—Binet scale such as paper-cutting and folding procedures or pencil-and-paper maze tasks”. Music was making them perform better. I was intrigued. Suddenly, I had flashbacks of art class in elementary. Whenever we were drawing, the teacher would play some classical music in the background. As a result, I would seem to get super focused on my art. Had I been wrong about the benefits of music the entire time I was in university? Naturally, this prompted me to revisit the question: Does Listening to Music Help You Study Better?
01 | Non-Supportive Science
The science behind this question is actually quite mixed. One can find research supporting both sides of the argument. Perham, N. and Vizard, J. (2011) found that listening to music can stimulate an “arousal and mood effect”. This means that some participants feel positive improvements in their mood while listening to music and this is what causes the corresponding increase in performance. If this concept holds true, this means that music can be substituted with other enjoyable activities, such as drinking a warm beverage, to improve study performance.
This is what I believe was happening in art class as a child. Listening to music in class was a rare treat and so when we did I felt happy and more focused as a result. Perham, N. and Vizard, J. (2011) suggests that listening to music BEFORE studying (or performing any enjoyable activity) is an effective way to obtain the benefits of the “arousal and mood effect”. However, the study does not recommend listening to music while studying. Participants, in the study, who listened to music performed worse than those who didn't on a serial recall test.
A study conducted at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that students who didn’t listen to music performed better than students who did on a game that functioned similarly to a Stroop test. You’ve probably done a Stroop test before. It’s this test:
Also, students who listened to music WITHOUT any lyrics performed better than students who listened to music WITH lyrics. The game used in the study can be seen in the image below:
02 | Supportive Science
However, a different study conducted at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie in France found that students who listened to a lecture with classical music playing in the background retained more information than those who didn’t! On top of that, Bottiroli, S., Rosi, A., Russo, R., Vecchi, T., & Cavallini, E. (2014) found that background music actually improved “declarative memory and processing speed in older adults.” BUT, this study also states that the “music was instrumental and it was not aversively loud.”
03 | What's the deal?
While researching this topic, I came across more studies that denied music having positive effects on learning than studies that didn’t. Does that mean that music doesn’t help? No. Let's take a closer look at those two studies.
For the students who listened to music during the lecture, it is quite possible that they had done some readings the night before (this is an assumption, bare with me). In that case, they would have been quite familiar with the material already. Therefore, the music would add a nice “arousal and mood effect” but wouldn’t be too distracting because of the student's familiarity with the subject.
Bottiroli, S., Rosi, A., Russo, R., Vecchi, T., & Cavallini, E. (2014) stated that the "music was instrumental and that it was not aversively loud.” The study further went on to say that “if cognitive tasks involve the same auditory channel of the background music, the likelihood of interference should increase, in contrast to stimuli processed in separate channels.” Therefore, it is possible that the same “arousal and mood effect” was achieved through the use of light, quiet and non-distracting background music.This would explain why, in the study, subjects that felt happier saw an improvement in their processing speed.
Bottiroli, S., Rosi, A., Russo, R., Vecchi, T., & Cavallini, E. (2014) claims that their study does not support the “arousal and mood effect” because they used both “happy” and “sad” music in order to alter the moods of their subjects. Regardless of mood, subjects who listened to music were found to perform better on the declarative memory test. The study suggests that the emotion that music evokes enhances memorization capabilities.
04 | The verdict
In my opinion, when intense concentration or focus is required to learn, I believe that music does NOT help you study better. This was also demonstrated by some of the previous studies I referenced. Listening to music before performing an activity can be beneficial in order to gain the “arousal and mood effect”. However, I feel that if one is performing a more shallow type of work or conducting work that they are familiar with than they may benefit from the “arousal and mood effect” that comes from listening to music while performing work. For example, during my time in engineering, I would listen to music while doing menial tasks in excel because it made it more enjoyable and as a result, I could work longer. This is the arousal and mood effect at play.