The Science Behind Music and Studying

By Anya Wassenberg on September 12, 2022

What’s the best music to listen to as you study? It’s an interesting question and one with multiple possible solutions. Research into music and brain function has been growing over the last couple of decades, which points the way towards answers.

But, the results aren’t as clear-cut as they may seem.

Your brain on music

In a 2007 study, a research team at the Stanford University School of Medicine looked at how the brain is engaged when you listen to music. Using MRI tests, the study found that music activated certain areas of the brain, namely those specifically involved with:

  • Attention and concentration;
  • Making predictions;
  • Updating events in memory.

Interestingly, peak brain activity was observed during the silences between movements of music. That reaction is synchronized across multiple test subjects while listening to the same music. The music of English baroque composer William Boyce was used because it was familiar in structure, but not well known.

Classical music in particular

The effects of classical music on brain functions related to learning, in particular, have been the subject of numerous studies.

  • One French study found that listening to classical music during a lecture improved marks on a quiz based on that lecture.
  • Listening to classical music can reduce anxiety, as discovered by researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute.
  • Classical music also results in lower systolic blood pressure in one study, in contrast to those listening to jazz or pop.
  • A Russian study found that children who listened to classical music for one hour a day over six months showed changes in brain activity related to relaxation.

The Mozart effect

A study from the University of Tsukuba in Japan looked at the effects of music on concentration, reviewing several previous studies.

A 1993 research paper, for example, found performance on spatial tests was higher when subjects listened to Mozart. A lively Mozart sonata was compared to a slow Albinoni adagio. In that study, music aided the completion of spatial tasks — but only for those listening to the Mozart piece.

However, the Japanese researchers decided to differentiate between the music participants liked, and music they were not already familiar with. The findings were interesting.

  • Music alone, familiar or not, does improve concentration;
  • Listening to music that you like adds to the effect.
  • Music with lyrics can actually have a negative effect on concentration and attention levels.
  • Music with what were called high energy levels likewise had a distracting effect that took away from concentration.
  • Music can help you remember what you have learned.

There’s no one-size-fits-all

While music can have a positive effect on cognition, memory, and attention, results seem to be individual on some level.

“There isn’t a recipe for everyone,” Nathalie Gosselin from Université de Montréal’s BRAMS International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research told the CBC in 2019. “It would be great if there was a magic type of music that allowed everyone to focus. Unfortunately, what might work for one individual could be annoying or even distracting for someone else.”

A piece in Popular Science, for example, suggests listening to music written for video games, specifically because it is written as background for the action that takes place on the screen.

While there have been many, the various studies use different approaches and tests, making it difficult to compare results. A couple of key concepts do emerge.

  • Music with a slower tempo promotes relaxation and can aid in concentration.
  • When it comes to classical music, the key is to avoid orchestral pieces with a big dynamic range and a lot of emotional power. That can be distracting.
  • Solo piano or guitar pieces are recommended by many.

Instrumental music that you enjoy, but that isn’t too lively to distract from study — that should do the trick.

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