We’ve all been there. It is exam time, the stress is high; all you want to do is be simultaneously distracted from the blistering sun outside the window, and the mind-crushing boredom that is studying. So you load up Spotify, choose the premium free-trial you’ve been saving for a special occasion, and dive into the books humming “Its going down for real” without a hint of irony. Your mother isn’t here now to bang on the door insisting that you can’t possibly study with that racket, so no need for sneakily popping in the earphones either. You know what works best for you, after all, didn’t you mange to get through the A-levels and/or the first few years of Uni. You can multitask like a boss, and it makes you feel less stressed. You got this.

However, does music really help you study, or does Mum have a point? I have no shame in saying I often rationalised listening to music as a way of ‘disassociating’ myself from whatever is going on, a ‘white noise’ wall if you will, that would occupy the parts of my brain that craved distraction so I could get on with the actual learning. When I was in my MSc coding C++ for MatLab I used to listen to Skrillex on repeat to help with the mindless repetitive coding sequences.

Its somewhat unsuprising then to learn that psychology research has been answering these questions for years, sometimes contradicting itself, but lately has been painting a fairly clear picture.

Music makes us feel better: Regardless of the type of music, though particularly for music with a upbeat tempo, it confers a motivational boost before engaging with a task (pumps you up); and the increase in mood has been associated with higher IQ test scores in Canadian undergraduates. In a cross cultural study, researchers found Japanese 5-year-olds drew for longer periods of time after singing or hearing familiar children’s songs, and their drawings were judged by adults to be more creative, energetic, and technically proficient. I hope these kids aren’t the same cohort.. (possibly NSFW).

Does Music makes us perform better?  Bottiroli, Rosi, Russo, Vecchi & Cavallini (2014) is often cited as proof that background noise improves cognitive performance, however the paper makes certain distinctions. They found performance on processing-speed tasks was enhanced when uptempo music was played in the background; compared to no music, white noise, and ‘down-beat’ music. Background music also had a significant performance advantage for episodic and semantic memory over the silence and white noise conditions (which did not significantly differ from each other). Therefore we shouldn’t be too surprised that music helps on IQ tests, which are primarily based on search on object recognition, memory etc.

They posit that this effect is mostly down to ‘mood arousal’, which makes sense given findings in neuroscience that upbeat and pleasing music releases dopamine; critical in helping reinforcement learning.

Got it. Flo-Rida > Hozier then? Well, not quite. With all psychology you have to read the caveats. The upbeat music used in the previous studies is Mozart, and the down-beat is Mahler; classical compositions. Not quite the typical music a normal undergraduate really really really really really really likes to listen to.

UCL’s own Adrian Furnham ‘pops’ up in the ’90s, somewhat before a recent flurry of research from 2010 onwards. Furnham & Bradley (1997) found that pop music was a distractor for both introvert and extravert types, with both personality types performing worse on immediate memory tasks compared to when there was no pop music played. Introverts perform best when there is silence, and perform better than extraverts on memory tests when there is silence. However, introverts performed worse on memory tests following a 6-minute delay in recall, and performed worse than extraverts on a reading comprehension task, when pop music was played.

Dobbs, Furnham, and McClelland (2011) extended this, looking at UK garage vs. silence or background ‘white noise’, finding emphatically that silence is the winner when it comes to studying. They also find that in the condition simulating background ‘office’ noise, performance on verbal and perceptual reasoning tasks, and also general cognitive ability tests, decreases markedly as introversion increases. Only extraversion is related to better performance when music is played; in perceptual reasoning and general cognitive ability tasks, but not verbal tasks.

Avila, Furnham, and McClelland, A. (2012) address this by further examining the effects of vocal music (using songs familiar to the age group) vs. instrumental music vs. silence on verbal tests; finding people perform significantly better for verbal tests when carried out in silence.

Along with various tests that shows music causes interference with information processing when it comes to reading comprehension (and more here), we can reasonably assume that its likely the linguistic elements that are serving as the largest contributor to the distracting nature of pop music.

So.. pop music is bad for studying where I need to read something? Yes. Stick on the Mozart; your parents were infuriatingly right. I don’t like it either, but science has spoken.

Any good news? Yup, Skrillex (and EDM etc.) really does help with coding and repetitive tasks¹. Computer scientists, engineers, and exam script markers can rejoice. Also there is some evidence to suggest playing classical (instrumental, not rock) music in lectures aids learning. If you are in some field that requires quick hand-eye movements and coordination (piloting drones? surgeons?) you can legitimately spend some time on Call of Duty and call it learning/training.

‘Context-based recall’ is a bit of a divisive one, but I think all the literature comes down on the side of ‘If you are going to do an exam in 2-3 hours of silence, you should learn to study and recall items from memory in 2-3 hours of silence’. That said, evaporating rosemary oil while studying and sniffing a bottle of it during an exam ‘brain-fade’ is more likely to earn you undue attention from an invigilator, than inspiring a Sherlockian ‘mind palace’ montage (trust me). And it is nonsense en par with homeopathy.

If you want a 800-study meta-analysis on what does actually work for studying, Hattie (2008) seems to have produced a ‘Holy Grail’ of a paper. Somewhat (un)usefully, he recommends “reading the textbook” and “answering practice exam questions”. Sadly it seems there are no shortcuts. Maybe ask the physicists in your life if you can borrow their time machine.

Good luck!

– If you want any papers etc. from any of the links you are unable to access, just email me directly or comment below and I’m happy to provide my copies.

1) Fox, J. G., & Embry, E. D. (1972) Music—An aid to productivity. Applied Ergonomics, 3(4), 202-205. 

Music while studying: its all about that extravert bass
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