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Studying with music in the background?

  1. Jun 26, 2009 #1
    So I'm not big on blaring death metal from a $20 boom box while doing Calculus problems or anything, but I'll often put some light classical music on in the background while studying, or the occasional rock and roll at a fairly low volume. My question is, how does this affect one's ability to effectively study? Some people are obviously more distracted than others -- I have friends who swear by playing music while studying and others who are the complete opposite. But regardless of what we think, does this actually benefit, adversely affect, or remain benign to our studying? I wonder if there has been any research on these questions.

    It is well known that the human brain cannot focus on more than one thing at a time: that is to say multitasking is a myth. It doesn't then seem to be a stretch to say music that has a lot of singing would be distracting from study.

    Supposing all forms of music are distracting and ultimately produce a less effective use of time studying when compared with silent studying, I would hardheadedly still listen to Mozart or the like while studying, so this really wouldn't persuade me to cut the music off anyway -- but I'm curious. What do you think?
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  3. Jun 26, 2009 #2


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  4. Jun 26, 2009 #3
    An interesting article, but I wonder more what effect contemporary music, such as rock or pop, would have on the study habits of a student. Would such music ultimately provide a more distracting environment to learn in, or would it have no effect on the student?
  5. Jun 26, 2009 #4


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    It depends on the student itself IMO. I have no problem doing work while my music is playing, or even when my brother is screaming at the top of his lungs. However other kids get distracted too easily even with the tiniest bit of noise.
  6. Jun 26, 2009 #5
    Yea I find I make more mistakes and lose my train of thought when I'm listening to music.
  7. Jun 26, 2009 #6
    It depends highly on the type of music. I find that listening to relaxing ambient or world music acts will quickly become tuned out by the brain, but acts as a sort of metronome for the tune of my thinking. After working for a while I may become aware that the music has stopped 20 minutes ago leaving an eerie calm.

    Another benefit of music is that it can put your mind at ease by returning to a familiar place. For example if you study listening to the same peaceful song on repeat for many hours, then go into an exam and play that same song, it makes it much easier to block out the sounds of other people flipping pages on their exam etc which can be distracting if focused on. I once went into 'panic mode' in an exam and everything I had studied simply flushed out of my brain...I'm fairly certain this would not have happened had my music been with me.
  8. Jun 26, 2009 #7
    This is a disadvantage though... it's been shown you should study in a place and way that will as closely resemble the test conditions as possible. (Therefore in my case, drinking a beer before taking a graduate E&M exam actually did help -- since my policy on helping my classmates in a subject I really enjoy was bring beer to my place, we'll look over the homework together!) Many testing conditions won't allow in electronic devices.

    So with regards to writing a term paper, etc, OK, listen to your music. But if you're preparing for a test, I would think twice.
  9. Jun 26, 2009 #8
    What the last few posts seem to describe is the use of music (or lack thereof) to anchor the information you learned while studying. If one listens to Beethoven's 5th while studying, doing so in the testing room will help with recalling the information since it is anchored to that composition. Has this been researched and proven to work?
  10. Jun 26, 2009 #9
    I don't disagree that listening to music may create somewhat of a dependence upon it during the exam, but there was not a single exam I took in college where I wasn't allowed to listen to music on headphones...and the positive side is that it put me into a more focused mood.
  11. Jun 26, 2009 #10


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    When I was in high school, I would have the TV on while doing homework.

    Later in university, I'd listen to the Moody Blues or similar music.

    The music and background noise helped me concentrate.
  12. Jun 26, 2009 #11


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    Gotta back-stop Astro here. In college, having Dylan, Hendrix, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Fleetwood Mac, etc on in the background (reasonable levels) helped block out some distractions and made it easier to study. You don't want to have "new" (to you) or highly progressive music when studying engineering - just stuff that you love and know by heart.
  13. Jun 26, 2009 #12
    I am unsure as to whether it helps or not, but I often leave the television on low while doing homework. It seems entirely individual dependent. I listen to rap music which is mostly about the lyrics and not the instrumentals. If I listen to rap while studying I find it difficult not to say the words in my head. "Soft" music is rather relaxing however.
  14. Jun 27, 2009 #13


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    I like to listen to music because I can't focus for more than ten minutes without getting bored and needing something else to do. If I don't have music to listen to that quickly devolves into an hour or more of websurfing. A minor side effect is I found myself singing/humming songs throughout all of my exams
  15. Jun 27, 2009 #14

    Jonathan Scott

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    I play classical music (as an amateur pianist and violinist). When I'm working or studying, I have difficulty finding any background music which doesn't either attract my attention and get me too immersed in the experience or on the other side irritate and distract me.

    On the other hand, I often find that taking a break from my work or study and playing the piano for a few minutes helps me refresh my thinking. Quite often, after a few minutes of playing I find that I'm thinking about my work or study again in a new way. There are many other ways of taking a break, such as washing the dishes or doing a little tidying up in the garden, but I find playing a bit of music particularly effective.

    For background noise which helps me relax without distracting me, I like the sound of steady rain, gentle wind in the trees and so on. Stronger levels of general background noise such as engine noise in a train, aircraft or ship tend to make me sleepy.
  16. Jun 27, 2009 #15
    I listen to lots of music while studying, I'm sure that says anything at all about the effects though.
  17. Jun 27, 2009 #16
    It could say something. Do you have good grades? :tongue2:

    Relating to what Jonathan Scott said, I completely agree with taking breaks often. If I get stuck on a problem or just can't concentrate, I'll go do something else for a bit (usually play guitar), come back, and make some progress.

    Using rain or other ambient/natural sounds is something I'll do also. A little rain forest rain puts me right to sleep.
  18. Jun 28, 2009 #17
    The post was supposed to say "I'm not sure" by the way, I guess that was the way you interpeted it.

    Well I only have good grades in physics and mathematics, rest of them are "O.K." I guess, I also just had some bad exams but I'm finally done with high school (wohoo).
  19. Jun 28, 2009 #18
    I can't stand listening to Mozart regardless if I'm studying or not. However I will put on some hardcore epic Shostakovitch, or Mahler symphony in between brakes when studying. The music seems to inspire me to continue studying.
  20. Jun 28, 2009 #19
    Listening to the 122th song right now.

    I remember listening to soft rock radio station for like 10-12 hours.
  21. Jun 28, 2009 #20
    It helps when you listen to music that you don't necessarily remember. Kind of like how a song get stuck in your head and can get you off track. If you listen to jazz or classic where the piece just keeps moving, you never really remember it note for note to hum it.

    And I think it depends on the person too.
  22. Jun 28, 2009 #21


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    I like to listen to music [not hard rock for sure] when I study but not loud though, all works well except for studying QM, there should be bare silence when I study it.
  23. Jun 29, 2009 #22
    Here's a few sources that I found online (just via googling and finding what appeared to be a http://clearinghouse.missouriwestern.edu/manuscripts/187.php" [Broken] on this stuff):
    • McFarland, R.A., & Hanna, K. (1990). Music during learning of a tactual-spatial task affects later response generalization. Journal of General Psychology, 117, 411-424.
    • McFarland, R.A., & Kennison, R.F. (1987). Asymmetrical effects of music upon spatial-sequential learning. Journal of General Psychology, 115, 263-272.
    • Rausher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N (1993, October). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
    • Thompson, D.M., & Tulving, E. (1970). Associative encoding and retrieval: Weak and strong cues. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 86, 255-262.

    I'm sure these references have references within them also.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  24. Jun 29, 2009 #23
    I've tried to study with music in the background... I find it tough; I tend to end up lost in the music, focusing more on that than my studies, but perhaps that's because I'm a music student as well. :rolleyes: So, I tend to find it better to not be listening to music if I'm trying to seriously study or read and want to focus more on that than the music. If I'm working on a calculus problem, though, I tend to do better if I listen to music (usually classical because if I listen to rock, I end up tapping my foot and singing along instead of doing my work).
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