Walk into any designated study space—libraries, study halls, reading rooms—and you’ll find that they all have something in common: silence. Nice, quiet spaces are supposed to better facilitate studying … right?
Turns out, that’s not necessarily the case.
In reality, people hotly contest this assertion. Some people say music improves studying. Others like places like cafes with neutral ambient noise. And other people who look for silence when choosing a study location. Perhaps it's about preferences: I almost always put on background noise for studying.
So what’s the truth? Is quiet or “distracting” background noise better for studying? We'll suggest an answer here, and give you a list of our favorite background noise tracks for when you're studying.
What is the ideal noise level for studying?
The effect of background noise on studying
Many studies have been done to explore the relationship between what we’re listening to and our productivity. The most popular question involves whether music is helpful or hurtful while studying. The answer to that question isn’t crystal clear either.
On the one hand, music has been shown to improve both the quality and quantity of work output, especially when performing creative tasks.
On the other hand, more recent studies have shown that music can sometimes have a negative effect on studying. Specifically, listening to music can impair your memorization skills, something you definitely want to avoid while cramming for a big test.
It seems that at this point, science can’t conclusively tell us whether or not listening to music helps us study better, although most people seem to agree that music with vocals or complex patterns is more distracting than repetitive instrumental music.
[See our better tips on how to improve your focus while studying]
Other types of noise
What about other noises, though? According to most studies, silence really is golden when tackling the most difficult tasks.
When learning or analyzing highly complicated material, our brains process information significantly more quickly without ambient noise. The extra brainpower required to interpret the noise input increases the amount of processing that your already overloaded brain has to deal with.
When the ambient noise is particularly loud or grating during difficult tasks, it can even have a negative impact on your health, quickly raising your blood pressure and stress levels.
Still, noise can occasionally have its benefits. When doing routine or creative studying, low chatter and noise (such as the ambient noise at a coffee shop or in the student center) may be ideal for creative thinking.
Apparently, moderate noise increases processing difficulty, which in turn promotes abstract processing. In other words, the extra work our brain has to do while processing a problem or task in a relatively noisy environment gives us the extra push we need to find more creative solutions.
Matching the noise level to the task
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Is background noise good for studying?” but rather “How much noise is ideal when completing this particular task?”
- When you are feeling overwhelmed by the workload, added stimuli of noise may not be ideal.
- When you need an extra boost of creativity, music or background noise may help.
- If you are getting bored by what you are studying, it’s a much more personal decision. Noise or music may improve your motivation.
[See our other tips on getting motivated when you feel like procrastinating]
It’s important to remember that music or people may simply be a helpful placebo to get you working well. If you really enjoy the music or the atmosphere of your favorite coffee shop, you are getting a boost in confidence and well-being, which ultimately have the most significant effect on your performance.
In the end, the ideal noise level depends on the situation, and on your preferences. While too much noise is always going to overload your system and impair studying, how much noise you need while studying is a fairly personal choice.
If you like the noise, embrace it. If not, find yourself a nice quiet corner. Just remember, though, there are a lot of factors that will play into whether or not it helps you study better.
Our favorite background noise for studying
Looking for some good background noise for studying that's not overwhelming and that doesn't have vocals? Here's a list of our favorites.
- Rainy day at a coffee shop sounds
- Rainy day at a coffee shop with light jazz
- Cabin with rain and fire sounds
- Ocean and fire sounds at night
- Cozy diner with jaxx
Looking for more information about studying effectively? We've also identified the best ways to build and maintain strong study habits. Get going and rise to your challenge!
Lesiuk, T. (2005). The effect of music listening on work performance. Psychology of music, 33(2), 173-191. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0305735605050650
Mehta, R., Zhu, R., & Cheema, A. (2012). Is noise always bad? Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 784-799. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/665048
Melamed, S., Fried, Y., & Froom, P. (2001). The interactive effect of chronic exposure to noise and job complexity on changes in blood pressure and job satisfaction: A longitudinal study of industrial employees. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(3), 182-195. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/1076-89126.96.36.199
Perham, N. & Vizard, J. (2011). Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(4), 625-631. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1731