Should you study with music?

Travis Dixon Cognitive Psychology Leave a Comment

Use psychology to help you study smarter!

I was 16 and studying for my big exams. I sat down at my desk and read a brochure my mum gave me. The first line said, “Turn off your music. Stop kidding yourself, you don’t study any better with it on!” I did and it helped. But were they right? As always in psychology, we have to ask ourselves “what does the research say?”

The goal of studying is to process information and transfer it from your short-term to your long-term memory. The best conditions for studying, therefore, can be explained using the working memory model of short-term memory. This model suggests that our capacity for processing information is very limited and anything that distracts our attention will reduce performance.

We know from dual task studies that if you try to do two tasks at the same time it will reduce your effectiveness. For example, try to read any of these paragraphs whilst saying “the” out-loud, repeatedly. It’s much harder than just reading in silence. This is articulatory suppression – one task suppresses the phonological loop from rehearsing (articulating) the information. So for effective studying you want to avoid any task that prevents you from rehearsing (saying to yourself) the information in your mind.

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The most effective study conditions are those that reduce distractions to avoid irrelevant demands on your working memory. This increases the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory.

Similarly, try to study while your friend makes random sounds. You’ll find it impossible. This is an example of the irrelevant sound effect – the common finding that irrelevant, background phonological sounds (any sound relating to language) have direct access to the phonological loop and so disrupt the information we’re trying to comprehend and learn. 

Music and Studying

So what about listening to music while you study? In 1993, Rauscher made a surprising discovery – when students listened to Mozart music for 10 minutes before performing IQ tests their scores on visuo-spatial tasks increased. This became known as the Mozart effect. But the findings were controversial. Some psychologists could replicate the findings while others couldn’t. It caused heated debates and a plethora of further studies – some even performed on rats! The debate over the Mozart effect still continues but the prevailing view is that if the Mozart effect is present it’s rather small, lasts a very short time (about 12 minutes) and is cause by improving someone’s mood and arousal, rather than the music itself (Jenkins, 2001).

The Mozart piece was k448, if you were wondering.

If you want to use this as an excuse to listen to Mozart while studying, remember that the above study had participants listen before they were given the IQ tests. This isn’t evidence that Mozart is useful during studies.

Let’s also consider this mood-arousal hypothesis for a moment. If the improved cognition is due to an enhanced mood which increases arousal, it might mean that any enjoyable music could improve cognition. Perham and Currie (2014) tested this in a repeated-measures experiment where students completed reading comprehension tasks while listening to either liked lyrical music, disliked lyrical music, instrumental music or nothing. Their test scores were best in the no-music condition, followed by instrumental. Their performance was the worst in the lyrical conditions, regardless if they liked the music or not and what’s more is that they accurately predicted these results. In other words, they knew the lyrical music would be distracting and hinder their performance.

There are two possible explanations for these results. In order to understand them, let’s refresh our memories of Baddeley and Hitch’s working memory model. This model divides short-term working memory into four parts – the central executive (controls attention), the visuospatial sketchpad (for visual information), the phonological loop (for verbal information) and the episodic buffer (a place where information is stored until it’s needed by the PL or VSSP). As your reading information, your central executive is taking the words and turning them into sounds which are processed in the phonological loop. The problem with lyrical music is that they also go directly into our phonological loop. This jumbles the information we’re processing and reduces memory. It’s like putting socks and undies in a dryer and hoping only the socks will dry.

One function of the central executive is to block out distracting noises and control what is processed by the slave systems (e.g. the phonological loop). However, blocking out distractions and maintaining focus also takes up a lot of cognitive energy. This leaves less energy for processing the words we’re reading, which is another reason why comprehension might suffer. It’s like your central executive is in a sword fight with two opponents at once.

This second explanation is based on something called cognitive load  – the working memory resources that are required for any particular task. The best studying conditions are those that reduce extraneous cognitive load – anything besides the task itself that places demands on our working memory. In this case, the task is reading and trying to remember what we’ve read for the exam. The other demanding extraneous task is the distracting music in the background. Instrumental music isn’t as bad because the phonological loop isn’t interfered with since it’s not processing language. That being said, studies have found an irrelevant sound effect even for tones, especially those that vary in pitch and frequency.

I was listening to Ratatouille BGM while writing this as I often do but for the next week I’m going to work without any music. I’ll write a post to tell you how it goes.

The conclusion is probably what you expected but not what you wanted to hear – the best conditions for optimal studying are a quiet, room with no music to distract you. But when it comes to distractions, there’s no bigger culprit than smartphones. That’s a whole nother story with an ending you can probably predict!


Jenkins J. S. (2001). The Mozart effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine94(4), 170–172.

Perham, N., & Currie, H. (2014). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(2), 279–284. doi:10.1002/acp.2994

Rauscher, F., Shaw, G. & Ky, C. Music and spatial task performance. Nature 365, 611 (1993).

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