Students, teachers, and parents have always been on the lookout for ways to increase the effectiveness of learning and studying. Over the years, new strategies, tactics, and theories have developed in order to discover what environment is the most conducive for studying and achieving strong test scores. One topic that has been up in the air for a long time has been whether or not music can help or hurt a student’s ability to study.
Like most topics concerning the mind, the answer is not black and white and cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” While studies have shown that listening to music can be beneficial, there are different conditions that can positively or negatively affect the capacity to study while music is playing.
The Mozart Effect
Research had been done on the effect of listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music while participating in various mental tasks. This research states that listening to Mozart’s music can provide a short-term improvement with these tasks that require mentally piecing together information, known as spatial-temporal reasoning. However, the positive impact of music on studying can blend into the speed of processing and creative problem-solving.
Although the initial research has been attributed to Mozart’s music, other research shows that any form of music with energetic and positive qualities that affect the student emotionally can also provide the same benefits.
The Cautionary Tale of Music
Despite the findings from research revolving around the Mozart Effect, other studies show that listening to music can actually be a distraction in some cases. The goal of studying is to learn and retain the information that is being studied. By listening to music, students open the door to become distracted from what they are focusing on.
Distractions will manifest in a variety of ways. A distraction from certain kinds of music may result in a student’s thoughts derailing and going off on a tangent. They may begin to think about different activities, other responsibilities, related games and movies the song is present in, or anything else unrelated to the task at hand. Some students have a habit of trying to sing along to their favorite songs and may have difficulty refocusing when the song ends.
There is a commonality that listening to music with lyrics can negatively impact one’s ability to study. This is because lyrical music will activate language-processing centers in the brain that make it difficult to focus on studying because your brain wants to focus on the words it hears. While a student’s eyes are receiving information from a book or webpage, his brain is also simultaneously trying to process words and phrases that his ears are receiving from a song. It is a similar scenario as trying to talk to someone in front of you and someone over the phone at the same time.
The opposite side of the coin is music without lyrics: instrumental music. In some studies, it’s believed that listening to instrumental music (like classical music) can improve focus by relaxing the student. Unlike lyrical music, instrumental music is less distracting by comparison because the brain’s language-processing centers aren’t operating with the same intensity as they are with lyrical music. This is where the Mozart Effect was founded.
At this point, the question becomes whether or not music helps an individual focus or distracts them and how an individual responds to specific songs.
Positive and Neutral Music
The type of music that is listened to can affect a student’s ability to learn, retain, and recall information. One study tested a group of people on their ability to memorize fifty-four pairs of Japanese characters. The group was split evenly between musicians and non-musicians, and test takers were instructed to identify neutral and positive (or pleasurable) music before beginning.
In the study, positive songs were any that generated pleasurable, satisfactory emotional reactions in the test-takers. These positive songs were favorites or well-liked songs that had an uplifting effect on the individual. Neutral songs, on the other hand, were songs that had little or no emotional effect on the individual, where the test-taker neither liked nor disliked the song and wasn’t affected while listening to it.
The attributes of positive and neutral songs varied for each test-taker, as every individual has different musical tastes. This means that some songs that were positive to some were neutral to others. For example, a positive song for one individual may be classical and relaxing music, while a positive song for another individual may be highly energetic with more beats-per-minute.
The research found that the musicians learned better with neutral music, but had better results testing while listening to positive music. On the flip side, the non-musicians studied better with positive music and had better test results with neutral music.
This likely happened because the musicians may have become distracted about the musical structure of enjoyable music while studying, whereas neutral music is passive and can be more easily ignored. Non-musicians may train better with positive or pleasurable music because of the emotions that this music can elicit. The improvement to one’s ability to study while listening to music can be attributed to how distracting a certain genre of music can be to that individual. Students that are musically inclined may find classical music distracting due to inherent habits of trying to mentally deconstruct why the song sounds pleasant. On the other hand, an individual that isn’t musically inclined may find classical music very relaxing and helpful in studying, staying focused, and retaining information.
When trying to improve a student’s ability to study, the goal is to increase their ability to focus and retain the information they read. If music distracts the individual, either consciously (e.g., actively thinking about related activities, games, movies, etc. or causing them to walk away from their desk) or subconsciously (e.g., the brain’s language-processing centers activating while listening to lyrical music), then the individual should try a new genre of music.
At the end of the day, the Mozart Effect continues to be questioned, but many researchers agree that the positive subconscious effects of music on studying are the result of a heightened mood while studying. The research may frequently be questioned on its accuracy, but many students and researchers claim that listening to the right music can have a positive effect on studying.
When looking for music to boost the results of studying, look for music that draws positive emotions and does not actively distract you from what you are studying.