During exam season, whether you’re looking for a seat at the library or local coffee shop, most students have one thing in common; they have their headphones on. It may seem like people have their go to playlist they use when they’re on the study grind. However, is it actually beneficial to listen to music while you study? And more importantly, is it right for you?
The Mozart Myth
Before diving into the science behind music and studying, it's important to dispel a famous misconception; The Mozart Effect. First investigated by Dr. Frances Rauscher, The Mozart effect documented an enhancement of spatial-temporal abilities in college students after listening to ‘Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major’ by Mozart. It as well claimed to have raised the student’s IQ as much as 9 points with repeated exposure. This discovery took the world by storm, causing the public to generalize the statement to simply ‘listening to classical music makes you smarter’. However, a meta-analysis conducted in 2012 dispelled the findings of this study, as the experiment was a product of confounding publication bias. This led to the conclusion that there is in fact little to no correlation between intelligence and listening to classical music.
If Not Classical Music, Then What?
Currently there are many different hypotheses to whether music enhances cognitive abilities. These include the Arousal, Mood, Preference hypothesis and Rhythm theory to name a few. Although each theory attempts to give an overall conclusion, none are conclusive enough to find a definitive answer. Therefore, in order to answer the question, we need an individualized approach. The leading explanations summate the effect of music into three categories; the subject’s personality type, the type of work and the type of music.
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed introvert, extrovert or somewhere in the middle, it might explain your preference and reaction to studying with music. According to Eysenck’s Theory of Cortical Arousal States, a classic introvert is an individual who is overstimulated and avoids further arousal. Whereas an extrovert is under stimulated and desires more stimulation. This theory supports a recent study by Dobbs et al. which compared the effect of music on cognitive performance between these personality types. It concluded that music had a detrimental effect on the performance of introverts, as it overstimulated the participants. It was as well discovered that music had a neutral or positive effect on ‘extroverted’ participants.
Type of Work
When it comes to reading comprehension, it has been almost unanimously concluded through various studies that listening to music decreases student performances. With one study suggesting that up to 75% of the sample which listened to music performed worse than the sample that studied in silence. On the contrary, arithmetic testing leads to mixed conclusions, with some studies suggesting there is no negative effect, a decline or increase, depending on the sample groups.
Type of Music
Although not one specific genre can be concluded to noticeably help your studying, it is widely supported that instrumental music is less distracting than lyrical. By processing the lyrics in songs, your brain needs to multitask, leading to mental fatigue and distraction from your desired task. It may also be beneficial to find a specific study song that works for you and play it on repeat. As according to the Changing State Hypothesis, rapidly changing music can distract yourself from learning and possibly decrease your performance.
The Verdict: it’s Complicated
Although many experiments have sought to tackle this question, the fact is not all individuals are created equal. The best suggestion to improve your studying is to find what works for you. Music won’t make you magically perform better or learn faster, but by finding the right balance of music and silence, you can find the right motivation and focus conducive to your study style.