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Does Listening to Music Really Help You Study?

Experts from the department of psychology explain whether or not music is a helpful study habit to use for midterms, finals, and other exams.

By Mia Mercer ‘23


Picture of girl studying with headphones

Students have adopted several studying techniques to prepare for exams. Listening to music is one of them. However, listening to music may be more distracting than helpful for effective studying.

There’s no season quite like an exam season on a university campus. Students turn to varying vices to help improve their chance of getting a good grade. While some chug caffeine, others turn up the music as they hit the books.

Although listening to music can make studying more enjoyable, psychologists from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences have found that this popular study habit is more distracting than beneficial. 

Multitasking is a fallacy; human beings are not capable of truly multitasking because attention is a limited resource, and you can only focus on so much without a cost,” cognitive psychologist Brian Anderson said. “So when you’re doing two things at the same time, like studying and listening to music, and one of the things requires cognitive effort, there will be a cost to how much information you can retain doing both activities.” 

In basic terms of memory, Anderson explained that we do a better job of recalling information in the same conditions in which we learn the material. So when studying for an exam, it’s best to mimic the exam conditions. 

“If you have music going on in the background when you study, it’s going to be easier to recall that information if you also have music on in the background when you take the exam,” Anderson said. “However wearing headphones will almost certainly be a violation during most exams, so listening to music when you’re studying will make it harder to replicate that context when you’re taking an exam.” 

Even though experts suggest listening to music can hinder your ability to retain information while studying, some students choose to continue the practice. Steven Smith, cognitive neuroscientist for the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, provided some suggestions for students who wish to continue this study habit. 

 “In general, words are distracting,” Smith shared. “So if you want to listen to music while you study, try to listen to something that does not have words, or if it does have words, hopefully, it’ll be in a language that you don’t understand at all, otherwise that’s going to distract from the stuff you’re trying to study.”

Smith also suggested listening to familiar background music, because it’s less distracting than something new or exciting. Additionally, Smith provided some principles that generally result in better exam results. 

“Make sure your studying is meaningful because comprehension gets you so much further than raw repetition,” Smith shared. “Also, you must test yourself, because it’s the only way you can learn the material; this is called the testing-effect. And finally, try to apply the spacing-effect, where you spread out your study sessions rather than cramming your studying all together, allowing for better memory of the material.”

Regardless of how students decide to study for exams, it’s important to remember that we all learn differently.

“There are individual differences between everyone,” Smith said. “Some people need a study place that is boring, predictable, and exactly the same so that they can concentrate, and others find it more beneficial to go to different places to study. It’s true that there are different personalities, so try and find what study habit works best for you.”