Music does not help you study. But the whole truth is complicated. To keep it short listen to music before studying and not during. But life isn’t black or white, and neither is music. In this article, we’ll cover nuances of the scientific research on listening to music and how it affects subsequent performance.
1. The Problem With the Mozart Effect
In an experiment in 1993 scientists found that listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 temporarily improved scores on an IQ test. The scientists themselves made no such claim that listening to Mozart increases your intelligence, but various media publishers like NYT or book authors like Don Campbell were overly enthusiastic in their interpretation of the science. The media frenzy that followed made it seem like there was something special about Mozart’s music. Eventually, even legislation was proposed that every child born in Georgia should get a classical music CD, as reported by the NYT.
The Mozart Effect (myth) was born!
But subsequent research into the phenomena was mostly unimpressive. The effect sizes that were found were small and researchers concluded that the increase in performance was related to being positively aroused. Both positive mood itself and arousal can be helpful when it comes to performance.
Take for example the study by Nantais and Schellenberg (1999) who had participants listen to Mozart, Schubert, silence or a short story. The scientists found that subsequent performance on an IQ test was a function of by how much the person enjoyed their music or story. It was enjoyment, not Mozart’s music that was the important factor.
2. How Well You Learn is Dependant on Your Arousal
You have surely noticed that when you are euphoric about life it’s hardly possible to contain yourself. In those great intense moments of joy, it’s nearly impossible to focus. The Yerkes-Dodson law in essence states that for the best performance exists optimal arousal. If you want to study well you should be a little excited about learning but not too excited. This effect also varies from person to person. We are not all the same.
As mentioned in our previous article (see: How to Study Effectively), we now know that music is only useful for studying when you can listen to the same music while taking the exam. Alternatively, a person who studies in silence gets better exam results when taking the exam in silence. Therefore we conclude that since most exams take place in silence it’s best to study in silence. Perhaps you should study using ear muffs?
4. Sound Volume
Your ability to learn is probably affected by the volume of the noise in your environment. The higher the volume (dB) the higher the distraction and the more likely we’re to make mistakes. A 2018 study showed exactly this: “The results demonstrated that participants’ performance during the tests was lower in C3, that is, the number of errors was higher and the reaction time longer.“
C3 was the experimental condition with the highest volume of background noise. About 68dB to be exact
5. Music Complexity, Task Complexity, and Your Personality
A recent 2019 study shows that complex music can help if your task is simple and repetitive. But if your task is complex then music is a hindrance. Perhaps this is why old sailors would sing sea shanties, but when we think of typical scientists, we know that they work in silence.
But those effects are influenced by how you perceive music. If you like external stimulation then music might help but if you don’t then it might hurt your performance.
6. Background Music is Disruptive for Memory
This is a fancy way of saying music, in particular music with vocals, is disruptive to the learning process that takes place while reading. A 1989 study found that in general, no background sound was best for short-term memory, followed by noise, instrumental music, and finally music with lyrics. Music with lyrics was the most disruptive.
Generally, music does not help you study. But there are exceptions. According to some studies, if you listen to music before studying then that can boost your mood and that can help you study.
Listening to music while studying complex subjects might be tempting, but it could be bad for long-term learning. If you want to listen to music then keep in mind that your music should be relatively quiet, your task should be simple (complex problems need more focus) and it’s better if your music of choice is instrumental instead of lyrical.