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.

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: http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2007/july/music.htmlSubjects 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. http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2007/july/music.html

Landau, E. “Music may harm your studying, study says.” web. 30 Nov. 2011. http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/27/music-may-harm-your-studying-study-says/

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.