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Listening to music can be a great way to enjoy yourself but does it hurt your ability to study? Image Source

This is a question that I’ve heard and answered a few times in my old blog but I’ve yet to go over it on this blog. After receiving the question again I figure it’s worth going over:

What are your thoughts on music while studying? I like it in the background. I’ve heard some people say it improves studying while I’ve heard others say it doesn’t improve it.
-April

My quick answer: Listening to music while studying is less efficient. I  categorize it with any other kind of distraction.

That being said, this answer isn’t always 100% fair. I’ve spent quite a lot of time on this question and the answer is much more complicated than a simple don’t do it.

I’ve been playing with this idea for years.

When I was younger I did a number of personal study experiments. I used to practice memorizing data under different sets of conditions. Then I tried to generalize results from my experiments.

At the time I was just looking to study better. One of the experiments that I tried repeatedly was listening to music while studying.

I went into my music while studying experiments looking to prove that music helped. Every bone in my body was looking to prove that music improved my ability to study.

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Eventually I had to admit that music couldn’t help my studying. I didn’t want to do it but I had to choose between diluting myself or making the most of my study time. Image Source

Music didn’t help.

In more cases than not, it hurt my final results. As painful as it was, I accepted that I shouldn’t be listening to music while studying.

Since then, I’ve dug into tons of documented studies related to this subject. I hate to give such a broad answer to a specific claim but the studies tend to suggest a few things.

Music without lyrics tends to show better results. Having a voice belting out words is a huge distraction.

On average, music does have a negative effect on results.

It also tends to lead to more volatility in the final results. What that means is that music hurts some people more than it hurts other people. While on average it’s bad, it may be good for some people.

There aren’t too many studies addressing the question of musical preferences.  A student generally wants to listen to music while studying to enjoy studying more. But enjoying the music in the background could be a distraction. Distractions are not the right way to get better grades.

In many studies, the experimenters select the music.

That makes it so the students own personal preference can’t change the results.

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The problem starts when that music doesn’t block out distractions but becomes one. Image Source

A student would select the music they select based on what music they would enjoy more. I believe enjoying the music more will turn that music into a larger distraction than some randomly selected song by a scientist.

That could make the results worse than the studies represent.

The studies tend to make studying with music in the background a risky proposition.

Some students may only be slightly hurt by music. Many students are  hurt by the music in the background. That’s why I’m quick to say, “don’t do it.”

Naturally, the real answer is, it’s complicated.

If you’re going to listen to music anyway then you should look for:

  • Listen to randomly selected music
  • Music with no lyrics
  • Music that you’ve listened to enough that it’s boring.

If you’re looking for the best possible results then you shouldn’t listen to music. Studying is for studying. If you find it intolerable then do less of it. You’ll remember more that way. Maybe even try the 15 Minute Study Strategy. 

If you’re looking to learn other ways to get yourself focused for studying (that are more effective and consistent than listening to music) then be sure to read 7 Tricks To Getting Focused For Studying.

Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to follow, check out the archives, and read the ebooks in the sidebar for all the details.

Should I Listen To Music While Studying?

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9 thoughts on “Should I Listen To Music While Studying?

  • September 12, 2016 at 7:01 pm
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    Thank you so much for your article! I’m doing a science project on this topic and this is very helpful and informational!

    Reply
    • September 17, 2016 at 1:54 pm
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      Thanks! Good luck on the project.

      Reply
  • June 26, 2016 at 7:01 am
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    Personally, I believe that studying in silence is preferable, but I find that if you are in an environment with distracting noises soft instrumental music can work really well. The point, for me, is, that the music must not have lyrics. Lyrics grab your attention; I don’t think anyone is capable of consciously ignoring spoken words. They just force your brain to process them, thereby disturbing your concentration. When I study at my university and people around me are getting too noisy I usually listen to electronic soundtracks of indie games. I grew up with Nintendo consoles and the chiptunes somehow give me a feeling of nostalgia without demanding my attention. An example would be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXH5G_bqrlc&list=PLL7kB1THYjmbNLv2bJwmdkLUH9qGUhTMN. I am not entirely sure if listening to such music degrades my performance, but I have a feeling that it affects me very little.

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    • June 27, 2016 at 8:32 pm
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      This is definitely a reasonable way to listen to music.

      I agree that silence is the most effective way (partially for behavioral reasons. If you pick the music you’re much less likely to pick music that isn’t a distraction.)

      With nostalgic background music I find it hard to believe it’s a serious problem. (Particularly when you’ve heard it a million times.) It may have some positive mood effects without the consequences of distraction.

      That is, unless you’re rocking out and singing along to Katamari Damacy. Then you’re nuts and need to stop distracting yourself.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • January 22, 2016 at 7:48 pm
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    In my opinion music is a beautiful distraction. In a scenario like studying for midterms, it is a rare occurrence to hear someone say “Make sure you have some distracting music to keep you on task.” To me music is the biggest distraction and will most often than not cause my mind to wander. If this works for you great, because music is also a stress reliever , and if I had the brain to be able to listen to music while studying I would. Essentially listening to an instrumental is still a bit much for me, even if it is music without the words.

    Reply
  • December 11, 2015 at 9:30 pm
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    I agree and disagree. Music is a known distraction from truly efficient work, but it can also serve as a stress reliever if used correctly. Sometimes an amount of focus must be sacrificed to maintain our sanity… people aren’t drones who can study perfectly for who-knows-how-long without any other stimulation. I’ve always used some peaceful classical music from YouTube or Spotify to calm my nerves, keep me from stress and keep me on task. I think the absence of lyrics from this music makes the difference, though. Songs with lyrics should be avoided while studying… you will almost always trail off topic.

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  • December 9, 2015 at 10:01 pm
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    A well written post about studying with music. It is a complex issue because different people have different brains and react to different stimuli, well, differently. So just like you mention is shown in studies, studying with music effects some much more than it effects others. I think it’s useful for people to, like you did, test out different scenarios and see what works best. And there are a variety of factors to consider. Like if listening to some acoustic instrumental music in the background (lyrics certainly make it more distracting), means you won’t get distracted by other things, or that you can study twice as long because it’s more enjoyable – then is could be worth it. But it all depends on the person!

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  • December 7, 2015 at 10:12 am
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    @Elfprincess – It’s great to know that you successfully realized that listening to music while studying is a bad habit, but I have to disagree with your last sentence… Personally, I think listening to music that you really know often makes you sing along and go with the beat, thus, distracting you from crucial information on your study materials. A relaxing tone would be a better alternative.

    Reply
  • December 6, 2015 at 6:47 am
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    I used to love to listen to music on my headphones while studying, because it distracted me from noise and how much I hated to have to waste my time on something that I wasn’t interested in. When I have gotten more serious about my grades, I stopped doing it, because it was so easy to get distracted and lost in thoughts. I guess that if you want to listen to music while studying, the best thing to do is choose a record that you know so well that you treat it as a background noise, and not get excited about it.

    Reply

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