It’s said by some that music helps you study. But in our daily lives, most of our knowledge on whether it does or not comes from anecdotes.
We may hear from friends and classmates that they feel they concentrate better with a little background music.
Others may tell us that studying by itself is far too dull, and listening to music simply makes studying more fun.
While anecdotes may be convincing, it’s always optimal to have data and research to back it all up. So, what do they have to say about it?
The case for study music
We see ample real-world evidence that people find benefits to studying with music. The go-to platform at the moment seems to be YouTube, where study music abounds.
One popular channel is Lofi Girl, which has 10.9 million subscribers as of this writing. Another is Quiet Quest, which has 387,000 subscribers. There are no on-camera influencers driving these channels’ videos — merely long stretches of focus-based music. And these videos rack up views like few others do.
In recent years, study platforms have arisen to combine the concept of study music along with more traditional tools such as timers and task lists. One such platform is Studyverse, which lets users customize virtual study rooms with digital backgrounds and music for productivity. Users have self-reported heightened levels of focus there, and the platform is growing at a steady pace.
The popularity of online options for study music — as evidenced by large numbers of enthusiastic users — seems to bolster its case for effectiveness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientific studies have lent support as well.
Scientific research on study music
Research seems to point to the positive effects of music on studying. Mostly, music seems to help with auxiliary components that affect how we study: our motivation level, stress levels, mood, ability to focus, and more.
Stress and music
Music can make studying more effective by reducing stress. A 2020 round-up of research on music’s effect on stress came to this conclusion: “Results showed that music therapy showed an overall medium-to-large effect on stress-related outcomes.”
Stress has a strange effect when it comes to learning. While you’re building your memory of certain concepts, stress can actually help you remember better. However, your memory retrieval will tend to decrease — which is obviously an unwanted problem during your exams. So, changing your stress levels will have an indirect effect on how well you study.
Motivation and music
A study from Montreal’s McGill University found that “music can act as a reward,” thereby “driving learning.” This is in part because music “engages several reward-related brain areas.”
This is research-based evidence from our anecdotal knowledge that music just makes us feel good. When you take an often-boring activity like studying but pair it with listening to some of your favorite music, it’s pretty clear that you can simply start feeling better.
So, while it still might be more preferable to go out and hang out with friends, at least you can enjoy studying a bit more than if you had to do it without music.
Music and focus
Focus is another important element of studying — if you’re getting distracted every few seconds, you’re going to have a hard time being productive.
A study from Tram Nguyen on the Cambridge Brain Sciences team showed that, among participants, “memory performance was best while listening to low arousal, negative music, and worst for high arousal negative music.
Here, low arousal, negative music refers to a piece like Prelude in E Minor by Frédéric Chopin (the piece is slow and downtrodden). High arousal, negative music has a more rapid pace but is “darker and more ominous” (the study gave Tempting Time by Animals As Leaders as an example).
The implication is clear: Music can help you focus and improve memory, but the type of music matters too.
Conclusion: Does music help you study?
In everyday life, we’ve often seen friends and classmates struggle with studying. One homegrown remedy has been study music. At the same time, data and research back up the idea that study music can increase study efficiency.
It’s interesting to note that we often like to think of “studying” as one monolithic activity, but it’s actually several components wrapped into one.
That is, the way you feel while studying matters. Your motivation matters. Whether you’re in a receptive state to memorize concepts matters.
To make the most of your study music, use it to heighten each of those variables related to studying. When you optimize the components that affect your productivity, you can ultimately increase the quality of your studies.