Listening to Music While Studying

By Emma Hartmann and Hannah Menz 

In a world of technology, many people listen to music. With Apple Music, Pandora, and Spotify, at our fingertips, it’s difficult to unplug. College students especially listen to their favorite songs walking to class, working out, or even while writing papers. Often, the flow of music is non-stop, continuing as they wander into the library to study for exams. Music is known to have many effects on the brain that alter mood and arousal states, yet, could these changes in cognitive functions help or hinder the productivity of student’s precious study time?

We weren’t the first interested in this topic. After a basic Google search, research and university student web pages all desperately seek a definitive answer. Unfortunately, there is not a simple conclusion to the multifaceted relationship between listening to music and performing cognitive tasks. Relentless we still wanted to know: should college freshman, new to the realm of college studying bump in their Beats while balancing their biology, business, or other blunders?

Pop Music:

Music is heard universally to celebrate, mourn, and even manipulate the mind. Researchers Hargreaves, North, Tarrant[1], tested music’s ability to influence charitable behavior, and discovered listening to uplifting music in opposition to annoying music influenced individuals leaving the gym to donate money to a charity, when given the opportunity. Could these principles also impact student’s ability to be more productive?

It’s possible that music boosts our arousal, allowing us to perform better, yet we misattribute this arousal to understanding the material. One study relates that, “The Yerkes–Dodson law states that the arousal level of the individual increases performance up to an optimal level beyond which over-arousal leads to a deterioration in performance.”[2]

Similarly, Frances Raucher’s experiments coined the term the “Mozart Effect”, for his experiment found that listening to Mozart ten minutes before test taking increased abstract and spatial reasoning[3]. Spatial intelligence is significant and evident when trying to understand abstract models in Organic Chemistry or understand complex economic supply and demand graphs. Raucher reasoned that listening to music may prime activation of certain areas in the brain that are involved in both music interpretation in the prefrontal cortex also associated with spatial cognitive processes.

Conversely, Cantor[4] found that listening to popular music usually interferes with problem solving or highly cognitive, complex tasks. Vocal music can even be said to be disruptive, according to Salame and Baddely[5] in comparison to instrumental music. This seems to make sense. As humans, we naturally cue in when hearing people talking; we are social beings.

Listening to pop music might not be the best idea for you when you are studying, however if you have yet to be convinced that classical music is the way to go, you would be happy to hear this study: Based on a research at Western Connecticut State University[6], it appears that there is no statistical significance in the effects of classical music and rock music on students completing a comprehension task. This study suggests the idea that the type of music you listen to may not be as influential as originally thought.

Like most debates, everything is conditional. Depending on what type of student you are, or what type of attention you have, music could be completely distracting or super supportive. Kimberly Leung[7] found there are two types of students studying: one promoted, and one inhibited by music and distraction[8]. She predicted that students who had “prevention focus” could resist temptation better and when given a task would perform better than those who would be promoted and distracted by music. She hypothesized incorrect: “When music was played, participants with a promotion focus appeared to have slightly higher task performance and task enjoyment than participants with a prevention focus… [they enjoyed the task] more than their prevention-focused counterparts” Therefore, you might enjoy your homework more if you listen to music, as long as it isn’t a significant distractor for you.

Classical Music:

One thing known is that effective studying involves our undivided attention. Our attentional resources allow us to concentrate on one thing, while ignoring other stimulation from the environment. Because our attention as humans has a limited capacity, it is easy to assume the listening to music while attempting to dive into a dense packet of notes may disrupt our attentional resources. However, lyric less music might be the one exception. Cumulated from the publication, Learning and Individual Differences, research has shown that students who listened to Mozart along with a lecture scored significantly higher on a multiple-choice questionnaire compared to students who only listened to the lecture[9]. Researchers associated the rise in test score due to the change in learning environment. Here, it was suggested that classical music provoked student motivation and interest to stay focused on the material being taught1. Although the exact mechanisms that lead to the results obtained are not entirely conclusive, this study provides insight into how classical music may improve some cognitive functions related to learning or reviewing educational concepts.

In support of classical music’s constructive effects on studying, experiments conducted out of the University of San Diego found that classical music significantly lowers systolic blood pressure compared to other forms of music like jazz, or pop. Conclusively, listening to classical music may be associated with keeping our bodies at a lower state of stress, allowing students to perform under less anxious levels. In addition to keeping our bodies at lower stress states, listening to certain genres of music that you enjoy is associated with dopamine release. This inherently activates pleasure pathways in your brain that can keep your study session feeling worth your while and rewarding[10]. In this regard, music’s ability to boost your mood while studying may have some fruitful trade offs.

In response to the research that suggests classical and lyric less music may benefit precious study bouts, next time you want to toss on some tunes for a weekend full of studying, try switching up your playlist and listen to composers such as Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven instead of trolling Pandora’s Top Hits. Test out if classical music reaps the cognitive benefits that psychologists are trying to definitively prove by sampling the “Cognition Booster” Playlist below and see for yourself.

Although some studies suggest classical music as the genre best suited for improving cognition function to help you memorize the cranial nerves or tackle an accounting problem, music effects on study patterns mostly depends on one thing: you. While students surveyed globally from Japan, Greece, the UK, and US[11] reported that they most usually play music to alleviate stress or help concentration, tuning in when other distractions, like a noisy typer or chatty neighbors falter their focus, most college students stick to studying in silence when content involves memorization, synthesizing of material, or studying a foreign language. From the research cumulated, it is evident that the effects of music on studying is much more complicated than we would like it to be. Even though there is no simple answer, consider the information provided in this blog and determine which habits you think would work best for the type of student you want to be in college.

These students listen to music while studying pathology to give them a visual/spatial boost.
This student writes a paper in silence for maximum focus.











[1] North, A. C., Tarrant, M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2004). The Effects of Music on Helping Behavior: A Field Study. Environment & Behavior,36(2), 266-275

[2] Yerkes-Dodson Law Of Arousal. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2017, from Law Of Arousal

[3] Jenkins, J. S. ( 2001). The Mozart Effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 94: 170-172.

[4]  Cantor, J. (2013, May 27). Is Background Music a Boost or a Bummer? Retrieved April 27, 2017, from

[5] Baddeley, A., Salame, P. (1989). Effects of Background Music on Phonological Short-term Memory. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 41A(1): 107-122.

[6] Harmon, L., Troester, K., Pickwick, T., & Pelosi, G. (2008). Http:// Journal of Undergraduate Psychological Research,3, 41-46. doi:10.18411/d-2016-154

[7] Leung, K. (2015). The Effects of Distractions on Task Performance and Enjoyment as Moderated by Regulatory Fit. SJSU ScholarWorks Master’s Theses. Paper 4596.

[8] Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., & Scelles, N. (2012). Music during lectures: Will students learn better? Retrieved April 27, 2017. Volume 22, Issue 2, 258-262.

[9] Salimpoor, V.N, Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., Zatorre, R. V., (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience. Retrieved from

[10] Kotsopoulou, A., & Hallam, S. (2010, January 8). The perceived impact of playing music while studying: age and cultural differences . Journal of Educational Studies.  Volume 1, 431-440.

6 Replies to “Listening to Music While Studying”

  1. For myself personally, classical music is the best music to listen to while I’m studying. I find that I have to have something in the background to be able to pay attention to what I am trying to work on. If I have pop music or music with lyrics, it can distract me because I will begin singing along to the words. Classical music helps me relax, and I find myself reaching for a mozart playlist!

    Interesting and informative post!

  2. I think this topic was very interesting. It is interesting to me that classical and rock music, according to one source, is not significant in effecting students to comprehend information. For me, depending on what I am working on, determines what or if I listen to music. For example, when I do math problems, I can listen to music but, when I am reading, I cannot listen to music. Overall, this was great post! Well written!!

    -Nina Relias

  3. Thanks for this post! I used to always listen to music while studying in high school, but when I came to college, I found that it was super distracting. I would always see people in the library studying a really intense subject and would always wonder how they retained information while listening to music. Good to know I’m not the only one wondering about this! The studies included are all really interesting too – I’ll be sure to listen to Mozart the next time I’m studying for an OChem exam in order to boost my spatial intelligence. Well done.

    –Theresa Santos

  4. Very well written and great topic! I don’t always listen to music while studying, but when I do, I feel that it helps me better digest the material that I’m trying to understand. When I listen to rock while studying, it helps me transition into a more relaxed/less stressed mode which definitely helps my ability to pay attention and absorb more information. Good job!

    -Chris Forte

  5. I loved reading this! The picture in the beginning is awesome! It really was an interesting read and I loved how it was backed up by so many sources. I have heard over and over that studying while listening to music with lyrics is not helpful. I am really happy to know this now because I LOVE rock music 🙂

    Awesome post.

  6. Henry Schimmel:

    I found this blog post particularly interesting because it relates to research that I have previously conducted. In research methods, my group conducted a research study on a similar topic. We looked at how different music genres can influence cognitive performance. We utilized rock music, classical music, and a silent control, and we hypothesized that the rock music would be the most detrimental to performance, while the control would net the highest mean test score. While this was true to some degree, in the end, there were no statistically significant differences between problem-solving and reading comprehension test scores in all three conditions. Harmon et al. (2008) found similar results.

    I remember conducting background research, and, like you stated, it was rather difficult to find anything concrete or definitive on the topic. From what we found, music seems to benefit people cognitively in very specific contexts or during very specific tasks, such as spatial reasoning tasks with classical music. However, a great deal of research, including our own, contradicted the Mozart Effect, leaving its credibility ambiguous.

    We hypothesized in our experiment that lyrical music would be more disruptive than purely instrumental music, but we were unable to test those variables ourselves due to very limited time and resources, so it was interesting to read about research that supported our initial hunch.

    Thanks for a good post.

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