Forget the chicken and the egg argument, this is the real debate – is listening to music while studying bad? I’ve seen people disagree on this one for years now.

So we’re going to unpack it and right away say – sometimes. And other times it can be your biggest tool – if you use it right.

It couldn’t just be an easy yes or no answer, could it?

So, first up, if you really want something to listen to we have a (free) audiobook from a chess grandmaster on improving your memory to help you get twice the results from your studying in half the time.  You can download it here and thank me later.

studying with music

So, first up:

The Benefits of Listening to Music While Studying

One of the biggest things is studies have shown music is able to distract us from energy output. People listen to music in the gym or while commuting. Sure, partly because it’s fun, but there’s another element to it.

Imagine if you could do an 8-hour study session and just switch off. Suddenly 8 hours have passed and the work has been done, you’ve been productive and you’ve not had to go through it all.

Alright, unluckily it’s not quite that easy but the concept is the same. What I’m saying is music can help the time pass while you’re still being productive. It can motivate you, keep you alert and generally make your study session easier.

If your study environment is a noisy one it can also remove you from that. (Although some people literally listen to ambient coffee shop sounds through headphones but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Improving Concentration

Music can (sometimes) help improve your concentration. We’ll look at how to avoid making it a distraction in a moment but (when used correctly) it’s more of an aid than a huge mug of coffee.

(Although I still want my coffee…)

You know the old Hollywood movies where they say “It’s quiet. Too quiet” before something jumps out and attacks them? Sometimes a study session can feel like that. Except you’re probably not going to get attacked by poorly costumed Martians.

Sometimes silence can be great but it does make studying fatigue more likely (we have covered how to stay awake while studying already).

More Confidence

One of the struggles in a long study session can be motivation. Even more so than poorly costumed Martians. Looking at a huge amount of notes and an exam date closing it can be de-motivating. It can sap your motivation and result in you quitting because “what’s the point in even trying?”.

I’ve spoken about visualizing success before studying (ideally with your eyes open so you don’t doze off at the desk) but music has been proven to increase your confidence naturally. You hear that tune? You’ve got this.

music psyched up

Improved Understanding

Being more awake and alert helps (unless you’re trying to study by osmosis I guess) but it goes further than that. Music improves your visualization ability which, in turn, improves your ability to understand new concepts.

The better your understanding, the better your memory retention.

Music Minimizes Anxiety

It’s perfectly normal to experience anxiety while studying. Especially when it’s a tricky subject or the exam is drawing closer. But, obviously, it does you no good. The more energy you waste worrying the less you’re able to spend on actually studying.

“Just stop worrying” doesn’t help (although that doesn’t seem to stop people saying it) but music has been proven to minimize anxiety. Not just relaxing music, if you’re into anything high tempo that still does the trick.

Music Helps Improve Memory

Yep. I mean it won’t help as much as this will, however, music has been shown to improve memory. The brain learns by establishing patterns and music can help aid that.

There’s a reason you’ve had that song in your head all day. 😉

But, there are problems with using Music too.

The Dark Side of Listening to Music While Studying

It isn’t all peaches and cream. I’ve seen study groups explicitly kick people out for putting on music (and we’re talking music with earphones here).

dark side music studying
Dark side of studying with music. Darth with headphones. Oh, come on!

The benefits of music can also be its downfall. It can motivate, inspire and improve concentration. But it can steal concentration away from your studying.

I mean a prime example is as I was writing this article the coffee shop is playing a song I like and I’ve caught myself paying attention to it instead of writing. Not to mention the public dancing, but I’ve made my peace with that.

It isn’t something we can consciously decide not to do. Even if we catch ourselves doing it and bring our attention back to our studies it’s still time wasted and the benefits do not always make up for that lost time.

How to Use Music While Studying (Properly)

Here’s where it gets a little murky. I can’t give you a 100% clear-cut answer on how (or even if) you should use music. Part of finding the right studying strategy is testing to see what works for you personally.

There are specific types of music which have sprung up specifically for studying and keeping focus. Usually lyric free (for some this is the best of both worlds, you have the benefits of the music without the lyrics to distract you) it can be pretty much anything depending on taste.

study music

This is an example from Brain.fm but it’s a pretty common theme. Some listen to soothing piano or upbeat electronic music. There are ambient sounds like background coffee shop murmuring and (my personal weapon of choice for studying) raindrops on a window.

For some, never having any music on is the way to go. Sitting in complete silence with a book is fine and they’re able to keep concentrated (at least most of the time).

Others might be able to listen to their normal playlist. Their concentration is guaranteed to waver but the tradeoff is worth it and when they bring their mind back to their studies they’re focusing better.

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