Should I Listen to Music While Studying for an Exam?

When I was recently preparing new questions for my exam app the background noise of the radio was quite disturbing. I wondered whether listening to some kind of relaxing music could have the opposite effect and help me with my study hence I did some research.

So can music really improve your study for an exam? Relaxing music gets you in a good mood and calms you down. So listening to music BEFORE performing a task, study or even the exam itself is really helpful. During your study silence is most effective.

So many people listening to their favorite music while they read a book or study – are they all doomed to fail? And what about the so-called “Mozart Effect” that suggests that after listening to music your learning ability improves?

Silence beats any kind of music

Listening to music before you start to study is referred to as the so-called “arousal and mood effect” and can improve your learning. This is not true for the preparation or studying phase. Researches have shown that students in a silent environment compared to people listening to music during their preparation performed more efficiently – so the simple answer is: Don’t listen to music while you are preparing for an exam. Even if music does not seem to improve your performance the degree of how much it hurts your efforts to remember certain things depends largely on the subject you study for and the type of music you listen to. 

If listening to music does not really help – how much does it hurt?

A study conducted by Dr. Nick Perham in 2010 showed that the influence of background music on your ability to memorize largely depends on the kind of music and the type of material you study. He tested the performance of students exposed to music they liked, disliked and a silence environment. The surprising result was it didn’t make any difference whether a person liked or disliked the music – both groups performed equally worse compared to people without any background “noise”. But not all kinds of music is harmful and the result also varies from person to person. The best scenario is that it just doesn’t make much of a difference at all. Perham describes that music without a significant acoustic variance – others might call it white noise like a waterfall – does have no significant influence on your learning. Of course, there are other studies that contradict Perham and suggest that music might improve your memory under specific circumstances. If I would have had to pick a type of music to listen to it would have been a waterfall, rain or ocean type of background but also the recent studies could not find any evidence that this actually boosts your memory. This came as a surprise to me because I sometimes put on this kind of meditational tunes to mask the busy sounds of everyday life. So let’s take a closer look at how the type of music and the subject your study are related to your learning efficiency.

How does the type of music I listen to influence my learning?

First and foremost all studies showed that any kind of music with lyrics does impact your learning abilities. This is not caused by the variations this kind of music usually has but the spoken words that distract the mind from grasping the details of the study subject in front of you. Especially if you are listening to your favorite tracks you are always tempted to sing along and try to understand the words. In fact, what you should do is rather switch off the music and read out loud what you are currently trying to memorize – a proven memory method that significantly increases the amount of information you can retain. If your favorite music is rap you now know why it is so hard for you to make all those information stick.

Another surprising discovery I found was that there is a difference between whether you are a musician or not. People without any musical education are better of listening to positive music while musically educated students should choose a neutral type of music. So it is not only the music itself but also your personality. In general most of the studies agreed that if you listen to music it should have the following characteristics:

  • no lyrics
  • not too loud
  • not aggravating (fast beats etc.)
  • calm, relaxing, positive or neutral

Is this true for all kinds of studies and topics or are there exceptions?

Two noteworthy discoveries I found while trying to answer this question is that structured (especially ordered) information of any kind is best remembered with silence while a list of words (e.g. vocabulary) could better be remembered after a period of 48h when the students had listened to music or even background noise. The problem with this is that according to observations you are likely to recall the learned material much better if your exam takes place in similar circumstances. Since this is in most cases not possible because you are simply not allowed to bring any listening devices to a test it is safer to not risk a decrease in performance if the test environment is different from your study.

The Myth of the Mozart Effect

In case you are not familiar with the term, the “Mozart effect” was born in 1991 and relates to research results that indicated that listening to the work of this classical genius could somehow improve your ability to study and remember information. The assumption was that the complexity and brilliance that is incorporated in his music could become a part of you if you just listen to enough of it. If it only would be so easy. Mozart was considered the universal power toll that even an Italian farmer was said to use to “persuade” his cows to give more milk. You can debate this with your friends and throw in what you learned in this article that even if music has an influence on our learning ability it does certainly not depend on who created it or how much of an expert he was in his field.

So why do I in conclusion answer the question with: Don’t listen to music while studying?

Many of the results I found are controversy. At best a performance increase was described as insignificant or “dependant on your personality”. During all my studies for the exams I have taken I found that having a quiet place and repeating important facts out loud is the best advice that is out there. The uncertainty whether this really makes a difference and adjusting the music to the type of material I need to study for a possible little advantage seems more effort than going with the safe and quiet environment. I do need to say that because of my findings for this article I get myself in a positive mood before I start my study or work by listening to one of my personal “feel good” songs. Apart from that, I found that many of the articles about this topic concluded with a similar sentence which I also would like to use:

When it comes to studying nothing beats silence

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