Maybe you had a teacher in high school who played classical music during tests to improve the performance of students like you. Maybe your old boss let you listen to whatever music you wanted because they believed it increased productivity. Or maybe you just feel like you learn better when your favorite tunes are playing in the background.
In any case, most of us have an intuitive sense that music is beneficial for studying, learning, and working. But is it truly? Or is this a popular misconception?
The Value of Improving How You Study
On some level, arguing about the minutiae of environmental conditions may seem trivial. After all, studying in any environment is more beneficial than not studying at all.
However, according to EfficientLearning, studying conditions can have a massive effect on memory retention and (eventually) test performance. Even subtle differences, like studying alone vs. in a group or studying with or without music, can ultimately influence the outcome of your testing.
The Benefits of it
Let’s start by covering some of the purported (and proven) benefits of it when it comes to focus, memory retention, and productivity.
If you’re the type of person who enjoys music, you should know that it’s activates the reward centers of your brain – the same way they’re activated by consuming food when you’re hungry or relaxing after a long day of hard work. These “reward centers” can be harnessed to improve your own productivity and focus.
For example, you might listen to one of your favorite songs after reaching an important milestone. This serves to motivate you, making you feel better about studying and incentivizing you to keep moving forward. However, this effect may not have the same power if you simply listen to music in the background while studying (as most people do).
2. Stress and mood
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that songs can relieve stress and improve your mood – but you may not know how powerful these effects truly are. When you’re experiencing low levels of stress and you’re in a good mood, you’ll be much more likely to absorb and retain information. Because of that, listening to music you genuinely like can make your studying more effective.
3. Attention and focus
One of the most popularly cited scientific studies on music and learning is a Stanford study on classical music from 2007. In this study, researchers discovered evidence that music can condition your brain to pay more attention to its environment – and potentially make better predictions about future events.
Because this study only focused on classical music, its practical applications are somewhat limited. However, it does showcase promising evidence that people study better with a little music in the background.
4. Stimulation and memorization
There’s also some information to suggest that songs can stimulate the creative parts of your brain the same way exercise stimulates your muscles; if you engage your brain more frequently, it’s going to become more capable of complex cognitive tasks. Some studies even suggest that playing music regularly can help you memorize new facts and information – making it ideal for a studying environment.
The Downsides of Music
Before you get too excited about the prospects of music as a learning tool, you should be aware of some important downsides.
Lyrics and distraction
Some people find themselves distracted by music more than they feel assisted by it. If you’re in the middle of studying and one of your favorite songs comes on, you might feel pulled away from your studying material and totally absorbed in the music.
This effect tends to be more significant when your music has clearly decipherable lyrics; since you can’t multitask, it’s almost impossible to process song lyrics and read written material at the same time. Instrumental music can still be distracting, but it may not be as impactful.
Working memory impact
Research suggests that listening to music can negatively impact your working memory – the short-term memory your brain utilizes when you’re solving problems, engaging in a task that requires coordination, and most importantly, learning. If you find yourself struggling with working memory under normal circumstances, music may be more detrimental than beneficial.
Personal preferences and irritation
We established that music relieves stress, but there’s an important caveat – that only works if you’re listening to music in the way you prefer. If the music is too loud for your taste, too soft for your taste, or if it’s in a genre or from an artist you don’t like, it can actually have the opposite effect. This shouldn’t surprise you. If you have a coworker or a study buddy blasting songs that are, in your opinion, terrible, it’s going to make it much harder to study effectively.
How to Use it to Improve Learning
So what’s the bottom line here?
Unfortunately, the relationship between music and learning is too complicated to come to a definitive conclusion. However, if you do plan to use music as a studying tool, commit to the following:
- Choose instrumental music. Music with lyrics can interfere with your reading comprehension and serve as a distraction.
- Keep the volume moderate to low. Music that’s too loud or too soft might have a negative effect. Try to keep the volume somewhere in the middle.
- Prioritize neutral music. If you love the song, you’ll be distracted by it. If you hate it, you’ll end up stressed. Try to choose songs you feel good about hearing – but nothing that evokes strong feelings one way or the other.
- Use your favorite songs as a reward. Make a playlist of your favorite songs to serve as motivation – and to give you a chance to celebrate when you achieve your studying goals. It serves as excellent positive reinforcement.
If you follow these tips, your songs should boost your learning capabilities – and make it easier to study long term. Experiment to find your own learning preferences and eventually perfect the art of studying for yourself.