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Are you studying for finals or completing your end-of-year projects? Got music? In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students said that music elevates their academic performance. “Music has increased my focus on schoolwork and eases my mind before tests. I truly believe that without music, I wouldn’t be able to do the best I can at school,” says Katie E., a second-year online student at Fort Hays State University, Kansas.
Music can stimulate our thinking and sustain our attention for some study tasks, research suggests. In a 2012 study, students who attended a videotaped lecture with classical music playing in the background scored higher on a subsequent quiz than students who heard the lecture without music (Learning and Individual Differences). The pauses between musical movements may help our brains focus and organize new information, according to Neuron (2007).
It doesn’t all sound good, however. In 2011, researchers found that students who listened to music while trying to memorize a sequence of facts scored poorly on a test compared to those who studied in silence (Applied Cognitive Psychology). Another study suggested that fast, loud music reduced reading comprehension (Psychology of Music, 2011).
Be wary of musical distractions: lyrics, drama, a too-upbeat tempo, and high volume. “The 1812 Overture [by Tchaikovsky] would not be a good study aid, unless you were studying to be a demolitions expert,” Alan Chapman, a classical radio host and producer, told USC News.
In our survey, students recommended instrumental classical, jazz, electronic, and film soundtracks. “Everyone has their own unique taste, so try a random playlist and see what gets you pumped, focused, relaxed, etc.,” says Logan B., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you’re working on a creative task, try an ambient noise soundtrack (e.g., the Coffitivity app): A 2012 study found that the moderate background noise of a coffee shop or TV can enhance creativity (Journal of Consumer Research).
Students: “My best study music”
“Classical music helps keep me relaxed and focused. I usually listen to Beethoven’s ‘Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2’ (‘Moonlight Sonata’). Piano sonatas and piano trios are the most relaxing of classical music.”
—Brittney B., second-year undergraduate, University of Central Arkansas
“Piano pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Satie. John Williams (not exactly classical) and Tchaikovsky are my favorite composers.”
—Jimmy W., fourth-year undergraduate, Old Dominion University, Virginia
“Yo-Yo Ma is a Chinese-American cellist, and an amazing one at that. The cello is my favorite instrument to listen to when I am studying, and then I play it again during the test to help me remember what I studied.”
—Katie E., second-year online student, Fort Hays State University, Kansas
“For productive study sessions I love Andrés Segovia, a classical guitarist, and Bach’s lute suites.”
—Luke B.*, recent graduate, Tufts University, Massachusetts (*Name changed)
“For concentration I listen to instrumentals such as ‘Light Above the Trees’ by Keiko Matsui; ‘River Flows in You’ by Yiruma, and ‘Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake (pinghu qiuyue)’ by Lang Lang.”
—Name withheld, third-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania
“For studying I love listening to classical music or some good jazz like Miles Davis or Billie Holiday, the kind of easy music that doesn’t distract or take away from studying.”
—Jonnie P., fourth-year graduate student, Boise State University, Idaho
“The band Explosions in the Sky is really great for homework. They are a postmodern minimalist rock band. That may sound like a complicated genre, but they have done several scores for TV and films, including Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor. It is essentially a modern version of classical music.”
—Brandt D., recent graduate, University of North Dakota School of Law
“Classical, smooth jazz, and mild electronica/dubsteb without lyrics for studying; sounds that are fairly consistent, without a lot of tempo changes or super loud/soft parts.”
—Shari B., fourth-year graduate student, University of Wisconsin–Madison
“Deadmau5 or even Bethel’s album Without Words relax me but also keep me focused on the work I need to do. The words can get distracting at times, so anything without words is wonderful.”
—Luciano E., third-year undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology
“Jack Johnson’s acoustic music (guitar) usually helps the most.”
—Jake U., third-year undergraduate, Santa Clara University, California
“Instrumental rock such as AC/DC’s ‘D.T.’ or ‘Sink The Pink’ helps me tune out the world while working on homework.”
—Raymond H., third-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Platteville
“I use the album Power Animals & Native Nights [Native American meditation music] while I do my homework. They are grouped into one video on YouTube.”
—Shane K., third-year undergraduate, Fort Hays State University, Kansas
“When I’m studying, I like Celtic folk music. The driving beat, energy, and tonality all contribute to a movement mindset and keep me feeling energized. Also, the lack of lyrics is a plus when I’m writing!”
—Trevor D., graduate student, University of Colorado Boulder
“Downtempo instrumental music is great to chill out to. Homework Edits on YouTube are 1+ hour-long tracks that are good for focusing on homework. Coffitivity is a cool app that operates on the science that a bit of background noise makes us more productive. SoundCloud is also great for discovering music you’ve never listened to before.”
—Alexa T., second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University
“When I’m trying to study, I’ll listen to film scores because that way I still kind of know the music except that I can’t get distracted by lyrics.”
—Elizabeth S., first-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire
And a reminder that what works for one doesn’t work for all:
“Classical helps me block out distractions. I like the Piano Guys; they play contemporary songs with classical instruments.”
—Justin D., second-year undergraduate, Central Washington University
“Avoid ‘performance music’ like Piano Guys when studying as it causes too much of a distraction.”
—Ryan M., second-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage
Caitlin Walsh: Upperclassman at Northern Illinois University, majoring in psychology and sociology with a certificate in criminology; Student Health 101 Student Advisory Board 2015–16.
“The 8tracks app is a music streaming service with no ads. After creating a user name and password, you easily search for your favorite artists. While listening, you can type in a keyword that represents how you are feeling, and songs will come up that fit your mood.”
“It’s a good way to alter your bad mood. If you are feeling down, search for a happy or upbeat playlist. It’s a fantastic motivator.”
Rating: 5/5 stars
“It has fun ’90s music and has given me new songs I haven’t heard before. This app even gave me a good yoga playlist, which I was having a hard time making by myself.”
Rating: 5/5 stars
“Motivation, relaxation, and music all in one app. What else could I ask for?”
Rating: 5/5 stars
Baker, M. (2007, August 1). Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds. Stanford Medicine News Center. Retrieved from https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2007/07/music-moves-brain-to-pay-attention-stanford-study-finds.html
Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., & Scelles, N. (2012). Music during lectures: Will students learn better? Learning and Individual Differences, 22(2), 258–262.
Engel, A. (2014, December 5). Studying for finals? Let classical music help. USC News, University of Southern California. Retrieved from https://news.usc.edu/71969/studying-for-finals-let-classical-music-help/
Forde, W., Schellenberg, G., & Letnic, A. K. (2011). Fast and loud background music disrupts reading comprehension. Psychology of Music, 40(6), 700–708.
Goodwin, E. (2015, January 31). Do or don’t: Studying while listening to music. ULoop. Retrieved from https://www.uloop.com/news/view.php/149570/Do-Or-Dont-Studying-While-Listening-To
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Perham, N., & Vizard, J. (2011). Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(4), 625–631.
Sridharan, D., Levitin, D. J., Chafe, C. H., Berger, J., et al. (2007). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521–532.
Tickell, S. C. (2012, September 10). Should you listen to music while you study? USA Today. Retrieved from https://college.usatoday.com/2012/09/10/should-you-listen-to-music-while-you-study/