Music to My Ears

Walking around Julian, Roy O. West Library, or any other study space on campus, you are sure to see students working hard on their assignments while listening to music on their ipods or computers. Many students claim that the music helps them block out the surrounding distractions and concentrate on their work. Although students have a variety of musical interests, the common thought is that listening to classical music, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the best choice for studying. Research on the effect of listening to music, however, is not so clean cut.

On one hand, it would seem contradictory that dividing the brain’s function between two tasks, studying and listening to music, would provide an improvement to having the brain focus solely on studying. On the other hand, listening to music may stimulate the brain and enhance the student’s ability to study.

As it turns out, it may depend on how often you listen to music when you study. A study done at Bradley University gave reading comprehension tests to 16 male and 16 female college students. Half of each gender were given the test in a quiet setting, while the other half took the test with music of their choosing (many previous tests did not allow subjects to choose their music). The subjects read the passage for 10 minutes and then answered  5 questions without looking back at the reading. The mean reading comprehension score in the music condition for maIes was 6.9 and for females, 6.6. In the no-music condition, mean scores for males and females were 6.6 and 8.6, respectively. While it appears that the music had no major effect on the males and a large effect on the females, the results also showed that the frequency that the students study with music was also significant. Among females, two reported that they frequently studied to music, 4 said occasionally, and 10 reported never. Of the male subjects, 5 reported frequently studying to music, 6 said occasionally, and 5 reported never. Thus, females studied to music less often than did males. The distracting effect that the music had on the females studied can be explained by the fact that they were not used to studying with music.

A more recent study at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, United Kingdom, suggests that music may actually hurt your studying if you are trying to memorize and ordered list, such as numbers, facts, or dates. Participants were tested under various listening conditions: quiet, music that they’d said they liked, music that they’d said they didn’t like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers. They then instructed 25 participants between ages 18 and 30 try to memorize, and later recall, a list of letters in order. The study found that participants performed worst while listening to music, regardless of whether they liked that music, and to the speech of random numbers. They did the best in the quiet and while listening to the repeated “three.” The researchers hypothesized that your brain might get thrown off it’s attempt to memorize a sequence by the changing words and notes in a song. This study, however, does not completely contradict previous studies that show music’s benefit. It simply points out that there may be limitations on the types of studying that are enhanced by listening to music.

But what is actually happening in the brain that would cause the positive or negative effect of listening to music while studying. Recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, allows scientists to see what the brain is doing and take pictures and videos of its activity. Using this technology, a research team from the Stanford University School of Medicine research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory. A link to the video is here: listened to short symphonies by 18th century composers while undergoing the fMRI to image their brain. What surprised them was that the peak brain activity came during the short time period in between musical movements.

So what does all this research mean, and how does it apply to you?

First, if you currently listen to music while you study, you can continue. If, however, you are thinking starting to listen to music for the first time, you may want to stop and rethink. Starting this new activity during your studying may distract you until you become used to it.

Second, it depends on the type of studying you are doing. If you are trying to memorize a list, ordered process, or the digits of pi, listening to music will hinder your studying.

Third, to increase your brain activity, only listen to the transitions in between songs on your ipod. This suggestion may not be particle, but you can try it if you want.


Baker, M. “Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds.” Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Landau, E. “Music may harm your studying, study says.” web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Etaugh, C. and Michals, D. “Effects on Reading Comprehension of Preferred Music and Frequency of Studying to Music.” Perceptual and  Motor Skills,  1975, 41 , 553-554.

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About jcripe

I am a senior member of the DePauw Science Research Fellows honors program. I am originally from Belleville, IL. I am a physics and math double major. After graduation, I will attend graduate school and research gravitational physics.

8 thoughts on “Music to My Ears

  1. Jon,

    I really liked your post. I have always studied (aka written papers) listening to music and felt that it helped me to get into a groove. I try to use music that doesn’t have any words (Ratatat anyone?), but have strayed occasionally. After reading your post I feel better about my music listening while working, but I think I will try to cut down my listening while doing class reading.
    However, I was wondering if the Bradley study took into account those that studied with music and how they performed on tests without music. I feel that would be a more accurate assessment of how listening to music affects learning. Until that research comes out though, I will continue to listen to favorite bands while completing my work.


  2. I thought that this was really interesting. I usually use music to get myself focused when I am studying, and it always has to be music without words (I go for classical). But when I really have to concentrate on what I am doing, I end up turning my music off. I had never really thought about why I did this or what was parts of my brain might be activated by listening to music while I was studying. But it is interesting to know that there is actual evidence to show that just working on homework, without the music, allows me to direct more of my attention to what I am working on.

    The other thing that I thought was interesting was the Bradley study. Specifically, you noted that the females did better in the no-music condition because more of them usually studied without music. I have always been told that you should try to replicate your test environment while you are studying, i.e. study in silence at a desk if that is how your test environment will be. And I think that this study provides some evidence for that because when the studying conditions were more similar to the test-taking conditions, the subjects performed better.

  3. Hey Jon,

    I liked your post a lot! I think it was very useful. I actually made connections between the studies you described and my own study habits. This is a common idea that is brought up in the news or media and it was cool to see some actual science behind it. You always see mentions of studies on babies listening to music in the womb or when they are infants, but you don’t see many on the benefits or disadvantages of older people listening to music while they are working. I find myself listening to music a lot when I study- mostly when I’m tired because it helps to keep me motivated, but I notice that I can’t listen to it when I am trying to do certain types of homework. In particular, I cannot listen to music when I am doing Spanish homework or trying to memorize something, as you mentioned in your post. It is interesting that people that are used to listening to music had better reading comprehension. I guess I can keep listening then. 🙂

  4. I found this post fairly interesting as I actually use music to study only every once in a while, but I tend to use it completely differently than most people. For me, music gives me something that I can block out. In fact, I block it out so much that I generally don’t notice when my music stops until quite a while after it does. I find that I have a harder time ignoring noises that are not constant . So if I am in an area of moderate traffic, music is helpful for me as I am constantly working to block it out where as if I don’t have it I find that I’ll relax when there has been no noise to block out for a while and then suddenly there is and I am distracted by it. I would be curious to know if there is a difference in how the brain reacts depending on how people use their music.

  5. I do actually listen to music while I write papers, read, or do mathematics (classical so no words of course), but not while I memorize for a test. I have found that I do get distracted if I am trying to memorize lists and there is a song playing. I also like to study alone so I can actually talk and reason my studies out loud; this does not work very well with music playing, even if there are no words. However, when I am doing an activity like writing a paper I have difficult time if I do not have music playing. After reading this article I thought about why that may be and I think it kind of calms me down so I can work.

    I looked through some journals to see if this impact of music on anxiety was observed by anyone else and I discovered a study in Taiwan that looked at the impact of lento (slow) music on test scores and anxiety ratings. I found it interesting that they did not see much of a difference in test scores between the two sample groups, but they did find a significant difference in the anxiety tests. Students who listened to music during their tests had significantly lower pulse rates and higher finger temperatures, which both indicate lower anxiety. I thought it was intriguing that anxiety was affected so heavily. I think that many students will agree with me that although test scores may not show a difference, a reduction in anxiety during tests is nothing to sneeze at! This makes me wonder how many other studies have been done on reducing anxiety during tests.

  6. I thought this was a great post, Jon Cripe. Although the Bradley study suggested that the music had no major effect on the male subjects, I believe it would have had a major effect on me. I do not frequently listen to music, so as your blog post suggests, music would likely just serve to distract me. In fact, even if I am listening to classical music, I cannot focus on studying, reading, or memorizing. For me, music only serves as a motivational factor in my studying. I’ll kick on the tunes to begin studying, but as soon as I realize I am not retaining ANYTHING, I have to shut it off. So, like kortebein, music really helps to motivate me. I wonder how the effect of music works at the physiological/hormonal level. It is evident that music does not just have one targeted effect on the body; rather, it causes a systemic effect. In fact, current research has proved music’s modifying influence on vegetative, circulatory, respiratory and endocrine systems (1). It is no wonder then why music has been used as a supplemental therapy to complement conventional treatment. For example, it has been used to ameliorate psychopathologic symptoms like anxiety and depression, reduce pain, and improve immunity (1). So, it is evident that music must cause some hormonal response–perhaps even an immunological response. I just don’t know the exact mechanisms. So…it would be neat if you could find a study showing how music might cause a rise in a certain hormone and thus increase brain function….but it is likely we haven’t yet made the advances in research to exactly know this. Probably won’t find much information. Anyways, great post! I enjoyed it.

  7. I found this post interesting, since I do listen to music while study sometimes, especially when I am trying to keep myself awake or motivate myself. But what I found really interesting about myself is my selection of music varies according to the intensity of the situation and mood. I tend to play Chinese songs when I need to have high energy and when I am more relaxed, and when I play English songs, I am usually in a more intense mood and really need to be awake. If I choose the right music, it helps me focus and calm down, but in reverse, music distracts me from study if wrong music is chosen. I wonder whether it is because of the difference in language or the variety in the characteristics of the music from different countries that cause the effect. Unfortunately not much studies have been done in this direction. But if anyone is looking for a study project, this might be interesting.
    What I also thought of was a product that was really hot when I was in high school in China. It produces different brainwave using designed music to increase focus and memories and thus makes user more effective studiers. There are 4 main brainwaves that have different wavelengths — α, β, θ, and δ. The product helps manipulate brains to produce the suitable wavelengths in different situations. I wonder whether effect of music as of whether it distracts one from studying or it increases performances might be related to the effect it plays on ones brainwaves. Alpha wavelength, which is between 8 and 12Hz, is thought to be the ideal condition for information study and etc.

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