The Effect of Music on Studying: What the Research Says

I am a person who hates silence. No matter if I’m driving, cleaning the house, or grocery shopping; chances are I’m listening to music. My resistance to silence has cost me hours upon hours in the library as a student convincing myself that I could write an analytical paper and listen to Third Eye Blind simultaneously. Even as I write this, I’m tempted to pull up Pandora. But plugging in and tuning out always leads to the same thing for me: distraction and lots of wasted time.

The New Research on Music and Studying

For a long time, research suggested that it was possible to listen to music while studying as long as that studying was based in rote memorization and not critical thinking. So when students said things like, “Mom, I can totally study chemistry and listen to Jay-Z at the same time, it’s research proven!” parents believed them. But new research coming out of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, United Kingdom, has proved otherwise.

This study looked at the human ability to memorize and recall information in the presence of different sounds. The participants in the study were tested while listening to different sounds: silence, music they said they enjoyed, music they said they didn’t like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers.

The study found that participants had the hardest time recalling memorized information when they were listening to music, regardless of the genre of music or their preferences towards the music. The participants also struggled to recall information when listening to random numbers. However, participants had the easiest time recalling information when they memorized the information in silence or while listening to the number three on repeat.

While this new study does not dismiss the effect music can play on a person when performing rote tasks such as taking out the trash or washing the dishes, it does argue rote memorization and music may not be the perfect pairing.

But why is it possible for students to listen to the new Drake or Mumford and Sons album when they run a mile or do chores, but not while they study? According to Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, the human brain uses the same part to listen to song lyrics as it uses for word processing, which is being engaged when studying. This means that when a student is listening to their iPod while studying for a history quiz, the brain is trying to multi-task resulting in the student acquiring far less knowledge than they would have if they had studied in silence.

How Music Can Help

While this may be bad news for music lovers, there is a silver lining. There has been some research that listening to classical music for 10 minutes before a test, rather than cramming results in higher test scores. The reason is that the music stimulates the brain and there is a temporary jump in cognitive functioning.

Music has multiple uses in the field of education. Studies have shown that students who play musical instruments beginning at an early age become stronger critical thinkers and enjoy math more than those who do not. Music can be used to help students learn material (think Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill”) and also can be used as a primary source for students who may be struggling with secondary social studies. A study of music can allow students to develop self-discipline and cultural understanding.

What to Do if Music is Interfering with Homework Time

The research has shown that music has a place in education, but it’s not a place that necessarily extends to homework time. Try asking your children to unplug during homework time, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, and see what a difference it makes. If your student is resistant to this suggestion among others, it might be worth considering bringing in a professional tutor who can work with your student to improve his study habits and provide structure. Students are often much more receptive to suggestions that don’t come from mom and dad.

Even in the busiest households, where silence is rare, sometimes nothing can be more crucial to academic success than a little quiet time. So leave the music to cleaning, chores, gym time, and car rides and encourage your students to unplug and tune in during homework time.