Listen to the music. Or not.

Does music help you study? Maybe, maybe not. Teacher David Cutler shares his (and an expert’s) thoughts on the issue:

As a college student, I spent countless hours studying in a dark corner of the Brandeis University Library. Often, I would lose track of time and wonder about seeing the sun again. Once, my mother called to ask why I hadn’t yet returned home for Thanksgiving. I had forgotten about the holiday, focused on getting a jump-start on a major history paper while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” on repeat.

Placing aside the issue of my self-induced exile, for me as well, music offered not only comfort but also increased focus — or so I thought, at least until coming across the work of Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.
Impaired Performance

Perham’s 2010 study, “Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?”, shows how music can interfere with short-term memory performance.

For my part, I think it really depends on what you mean by studying. There are a lot of different types of things that students do when they sit down to “study”. I’m sure someone somewhere has a quasi-official breakdown of the various activities, but I’d break it down as follows:

1. Forays: The initial encounter with a text, where you try to figure out what’s going on.
2) Cramming: Attempting to memorize material for an upcoming test.
3) Settling: Attempting to gain permanent mastery of some body of knowledge, or a deep and complete understanding of a text one has already read.
4) Authoring: Creating new written material of your own — including papers, poems, and computer code.
5) Frankensteining: Creating new written material out of a number of other sources. Also known as “cut and pasting” your paper. Lots of college students do this.
6) Puzzling: Developing familiarity with practices and processes, used primarily in languages, logic, math, and medical school.

I’d guess from my own experience that music is really, really useful for 3, 4, and 6. (Maybe 5 as well, but I haven’t done that sort of work for a very, very long time.) If you read about Perham’s research, it sounds like he’s mostly taking aim at the role of music in #2, and maybe #1.

Overall, though, I’d say that your happiness while studying with music (if happiness you find) counts almost as much as any marginal increase in results that you get from not using music. Maybe more. So I’m on board with this student of Cutler’s:

I presented Perham’s findings to my students, many of whom still refused to accept that listening to music while studying impairs performance. I even gave one of these otherwise bright and thoughtful individuals early access to my podcast interview with Perham.

“I enjoy listening to music while doing math,” she says. “It really helps me think, and I won’t stop listening even with the results of this study.”

So go ahead. Listen to the Music.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    And there’s always the possibility that it helps some people and hurts other people.

    People are different. What a concept.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    My only experience is in driving and listening to music while thinking about a presentation or some essay or piece of fiction I may someday write.
    Even a CD of “easy listening”, celtic instrumentals, ancient motets, or anything else breaks my train of thought.

  3. I learned long ago that the harder a piece of code is to write, the better off I am without music. I figure that listening must always take at least a pinch of brain power and sometimes I need all one hundred percent.