By Marissa Corder
Can music help you study more efficiently? Unfortunately, this question is not easy to answer, and research has yielded contradictory evidence. The effect of music on cognitive performance depends on a multitude of factors including tempos of songs, types of cognitive tasks being performed (such as reading comprehension or solving algebra problems), and prior listening experiences. The arousal and mood hypothesis proposes that music’s influence on cognitive performance is a result of physiological responses (1). This hypothesis was developed to explain the “Mozart effect” – the popular misconception that listening to Mozart makes you smarter; that is, after Mozart-listening sessions, participants scored higher on spatial abilities compared to silent conditions or listening to instructions on relaxation (2). Later research found supporting evidence for the arousal and mood hypothesis and thus, “busted” the erroneous conclusion of a causal relationship between music and intelligence.
Research corroborating the arousal and mood hypothesis suggests that music does not directly improve cognitive performance (1). Instead, music produces a physiological response in the brain causing arousal and mood to change based on the type of music being played. Thompson, Schellenberg, and Husain (1) demonstrated that participants who scored higher on spatial ability tests also reported higher levels of arousal and mood. These researchers hypothesized that rather than music directly influencing cognitive performance, music first excites arousal and mood, which then affects cognitive functioning. Another study found improved performance for arithmetic and memory tasks after listening to calming music compared to aggressive music or silence (3). These two studies support the arousal and mood hypothesis and further exhibit that music affects physiological responses which, in turn, influences cognitive performance.
In addition to varying types of music affecting cognitive performance, researchers found that the tempo of a song can also make a difference (4). One study (4) found that participants listening to fast-tempo music had improved cognitive performance and higher creativity ratings when compared to participants who listened to slow-tempo music. Researchers concluded these differences between cognitive performance and creativity ratings were a result of increased arousal. Thus, these results support the arousal and mood hypothesis and indicate that an up-beat tempo can positively influence cognitive functioning.
While up-beat songs can be arousing and improve cognitive performance, other studies suggest that music’s effect on cognitive performance depends on the type of cognitive task being carried out. For example, I prefer listening to classical music (without lyrics) when reading. If you have ever tried comprehending a passage while simultaneously listening to the story line of a song, it can be quite difficult. Music as a distraction to reading comprehension was supported in research (5). This study (5) found that performance of reading comprehension and more cognitively complex tasks was better in silent conditions than music conditions or simulated office noise conditions. While some research finds that music enhances cognitive performance, other research found it to be a distraction. From the literature, it can be concluded that the situation in which cognitive performance is affected by music depends on the type/tempo of music and the cognitive task at hand.
Lastly, prior listening experiences have been found to make a difference on whether or not music is helpful when studying. Researchers discovered that individuals who reported listening to music while studying more frequently also reported the music to be less distracting (6). These results indicate that habituation to music can be a key factor in whether or not music affects cognitive performance. Another study showed that participants had better recall when the conditions of their study environment matched that of their testing environment (7). Participants in the silent study condition recalled better in the silent condition than in the noisy condition. Participants in the noisy study condition recalled better in the noisy condition than the silent condition. Thus, students should study in conditions that will be similar to subsequent testing environments in which recall must take place. Assuming professors do not allow students to wear headphones during exams (a reasonable assumption), these results indicate that studying may be more efficient with silence.
In conclusion, many factors influence how music can effect studying – whether it be positively or negatively. One video (8) summarizes the different conditions in which to use music as a study tool. Frank suggests from personal experiences and a literature review to utilize high-energy music for simple cognitive tasks that require low mental effort (e.g., solving algebra problems or inputting numbers into formulas). For these types of cognitive tasks, lyrical music isn’t very distracting, especially because the language processing parts of the brain are not being used. However, for assignments that are unfamiliar and require more processing, calming music (particularly instrumental music without lyrics), silence, or white noise can be best. In accordance with the arousal and mood hypothesis, music can be a useful tool when students are trying to motivate themselves for homework. But, be wary of music as a distraction. Does music motivate or distract? The answer is up to you.
(1) Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248-251.
(2) Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1995). Listening to Mozart enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Towards a neurophysiological basis. Neuroscience Letters, 185, 44–47.
(3) Hallam, S., Price, J., & Katsarou, G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educational Studies, 28, 111-122.
(4) Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35, 5-19.
(5) Dobbs, S. Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 307-313.
(6) Doyle, M. & Furnham, A. (2012). The distracting effects of music on the cognitive test performance of creative and non-creative individuals. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 7, 1-7.
(7) Grant, H. M., Bredahl, L. C., Clay, J., Ferrie, J., Grovers, J. E., McDorman, T. A. & Dark, V. J. (1998). Context-dependent memory for meaningful material: Information for students. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 617-623.
(8) Frank, T. (2016, February 5). Can music help you study more effectively? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5_APAxM5Lg