Music for studying has evolved over time from a preference into an entire genre, as anyone who’s recently perused Spotify’s playlist collection can attest. From lo-fi study beats YouTube channels to collections of Mozart for babies-to-be, there are plenty of people that will tell you that music, especially classical music, stimulates brain activity and learning.
But does music help you study―for real?
If you were going purely off public opinion and collective wisdom, you might believe that each concerto you listen to bumps your IQ up by 5. Unfortunately, these music-based mental gains may not only be nonexistent but in certain cases, your study music may be actively working AGAINST you.
All the proven study benefits that you’re gaining from using Brainscape’s adaptive flashcards, for example, might be unintentionally canceled out by Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s not her fault. She didn’t know.
This isn’t coming from a place of opinion, either, but fact. While building Brainscape, our very best geeks combed through decades of academic journals and research to build the most scientifically optimized study app possible.
As a pleasant side effect of all that research, we’re also qualified to cover the series of events that led pregnant women to strap headphones to their baby bump in search of a prenatal IQ boost.
We've gathered all our research in this article to answer the most-asked questions about music and study:
- Does classical music improve mental performance?
- Does listening to music while studying have negative effects?
- How can Brainscape help you study more effectively (than with music, anyway!)?
- Should I just study in silence? Because that sucks.
- What about using music to work, or brainstorm?
- So do I hit play or pause come study time?
1. Does classical music improve mental performance?
The belief that classical music boosts mental performance seems to originate from a 1993 study in Nature titled “Music and Spatial Task Performance.” Before we even finish reading the title, we start to see some of the flaws in the theory.
The study in question was based on tasks specifically related to spatial reasoning—the capacity to understand, reason, and remember the spatial relations among objects or space. This may come in handy for beating your Tetris high score or rearranging your lounge in a way that would make Mary Kondo proud. But jumping over a knowledge-heavy hurdle such as the bar exam? Not so much.
This study on music and spatial reasoning was picked up by the New York Times, which reported on it, losing a bit of specificity in the process. Then, through a game of broken telephone, we ended up with the heavily simplified conviction that “classical music makes you smarter.”
From spatial reasoning to IQ. That’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it? Unfortunately, students and parents everywhere have been repeating it ever since.
2. Does listening to music while studying have negative effects?
Sorry to Wolfgang, but it just might. According to a 2010 study from the University of Wales in Cardiff, listening to music while attempting to memorize information may actually hinder your efforts.
The study found that subjects who listened to music—more specifically, what they referred to as “changing-state conditions”—while attempting to memorize a list weren’t able to recall as much as those who studied in complete silence, or while exposed to a single word repeated monotonously. That’s good news if you like studying with a creepy mantra in the background!
Let’s look at a statement from the lead researcher Nick Perham:
“The poorer performance of the music and changing-state sounds are due to the acoustical variation within those environments. This impairs the ability to recall the order of items, via rehearsal, within the presented list. Mental arithmetic also requires the ability to retain order information in the short-term via rehearsal, and may be similarly affected by their performance in the presence of changing-state, background environments.”
The authors speculated that “music may impair cognitive abilities in these scenarios because if you’re trying to memorize things in order, you may get thrown off by the changing words and notes in your chosen song.”
In layman’s terms, when studying your biology notes, you might not remember the parts of the limbic system quite as well if your brain is (unconsciously) trying to keep up with Eminem’s “Rap God” at the same time.
This could be a disaster for students trying to prepare for important exams.
3. How can Brainscape help you study more effectively (than with music, anyway!)?
Another thing that may help you focus on your studies? Using the Brainscape app. One of the reasons students like studying with music in the background is because they find studying to be, well, boring. The music makes the experience more pleasurable; although, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t do you any cognitive favors.
Brainscape’s adaptive flashcard system is built from the ground up around methods like spaced repetition and active recall to make studying easier and more effective. Moreover, the information is delivered in super manageable bite-sizes with a cornucopia of features designed to grip your attention and keep you engaged while preparing for your exam.
So, while there’s no magical pill or a single tip that’ll make you learn better, Brainscape can swing the needle in the right direction.
Still can’t imagine studying without music to help you focus? We’d recommend checking out our complete guide to focusing better to find something that works for you, without handicapping how much you remember.
4. Should I just study in silence? Because that sucks.
Not necessarily! There are some options if total quiet is a little too eerie for you. Since changing-state conditions (like music) impair recall, we can assume that quiet, repetitive music is not as harmful to recall as more complex music. If you MUST listen to music while studying, quiet, repetitive instrumental music seems to be the safest option (you win this round, lo-fi girl.)
One other safe option for some auditory stimulation that won’t derail your study session is something we’ve actually covered here at Brainscape before: binaural beats. More than being a pretty decent mixtape title, binaural beats are an intersection of music and science developed to stimulate your brain.
By listening to these beats while wearing stereo headphones, two separate frequencies are broadcast into each ear and combined by your brain. Allegedly, this can encourage increased learning, concentration, memory, and more (although the jury is still out on whether they actually work).
5. What about using music to work or brainstorm?
We’ve been discussing the effects that music has on studying and memorization. But that’s not to say music can’t positively affect your work and mind in other ways, and for other types of tasks. In fact, there’s evidence that music can boost the quality and quantity of your performance in these other tasks.
A study from the University of Windsor found that when it came to software development, developers produced both a greater quantity and higher quality of work when they had background music.
What if you’re working in a creative space, trying to come up with a new world-changing idea, or maybe the perfect joke for your blog post? Well, music can help there as well. In 2012, a study from the Journal of Consumer Research discovered that not only music but even just moderately loud ambient noise, improved subjects’ abstract thinking, boosting their creativity and effectiveness.
Trying to learn a new language? It turns out that if you’re a musician, you may already have a leg up on the competition.
Scientists at Northwestern University found that “musicians are better than non-musicians in learning to incorporate sound patterns for a new language into words.” Blasting music while learning the language is still not a great idea, but this study just makes it clear that music has a distinct effect on our brains.
[Speaking of languages, Brainscape has a toolkit and guide for the best way to learn a language on your own.]
Overall, it would appear that music can improve our creative prowess. But the same doesn’t apply for sitting down to master a knowledge-heavy subject. That’s when Brainscape can really come in handy.
6. So does music help you study?
From the available research, the answer to that question depends both on what you’re listening to and what kind of work you’re doing. If you’re studying with the intent to remember what you read, you should stick with silence, gentle sounds like binaural beats and white noise, or simple, repetitive, lyric-free music to ensure you’re getting maximum value from the time invested.
[Looking for a boost in motivation? Check out our guide on how to find the motivation to study when you'd rather procrastinate]
One final thought is this: use music as a reward rather than a study aid.
After 30 minutes of studying, allow yourself a couple listens to your favorite music. It might even sound better than usual, knowing that you just knocked out some extremely efficient studying. Call it a victory song.
However, if the work you’re doing doesn’t demand deep memorization or recall, music may indeed offer some benefits to both your efficiency and creativity.
Want to learn even more about the connections between music and the brain? Check out the podcast Music and the Brain over at the Library of Congress.
For more tips to optimize your study time, check out our complete guide on how to study more effectively with less total effort.
Ettlinger, M., Margulis, E., & Wong, P. (2011). Implicit memory in music and language. Frontiers in Psychology. https://books.google.com/books?id=-L-tlIXA8WQC&lpg=PA99
Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran, B. (2010). Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(8), 599-605. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2882
Lesiuk, T. (2005). The effect of music listening on work performance. Psychology of Music, 33(2), 173-191. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0305735605050650
Mehta, R., Zhu, R., & Cheema, A. (2012, December). 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
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
Rauscher, F., Shaw, G. & Ky, C. (1993, October 14). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611. https://doi.org/10.1038/365611a0