Britney Spears and Beethoven — two iconic artists whose music is internationally recognized and celebrated. But when it comes to listening to music while studying, which is the better option?
According to one Ryerson University professor, the answer is neither.
“Generally, music is more of a distraction than it is something that will put you in the right state of mind to get more studying done,” said psychology professor Frank Russo.
While it’s common for students to listen to music while writing a research paper or studying for their midterm exam, Russo says the effect music has on studying is generally not positive.
The myth that music makes you smarter comes from J. S. Jenkins’ notorious — and now debunked — study called “The Mozart effect.” The research alleged that listening to complex classical music like Mozart improved test scores, which Jenkins argued was based on the music’s ability to stimulate parts of our minds that play a role in mathematical ability.
“It turns out that all of that was just music influencing arousal levels or energy levels,” said Russo. “If you test someone after their energy level goes up, they do better on a standardized IQ test. It doesn’t mean you’ve made them smarter indefinitely.”
That being said, music has been shown to influence the body.
“Music has a strong effect on the emotions in your mood,” said Russo. “You can certainly use music to pick up your energy levels and put you in a more positive mood, and that might help some individuals [study].”
In a study published by the University of Toronto, participants reported that they consciously use music to regulate how they are feeling — whether that’s to enhance mood, to relax, for distraction or to improve motivation. In fact, music may be a particularly effective stimulus to moderate emotional states. For example, after researchers induced a sad mood in a laboratory setting, listening to self-selected happy-sounding music was more effective at improving mood than anything else tested.
Russo says that while music does not specifically help students study better, it can help enhance their mood, in turn making them more studious and focused. But that all depends on the type of music they listen to.
“Music has some properties that might make it easier to study, and it has some properties that also interfere with studying,” said Russo. “The net effect of the music will vary as a function of the kind of music they’re listening to.”
The kind of music you should avoid, according to Russo, is music that is considered highly distracting. This includes music with lyrics, a fast tempo and familiar sounds that are tagged to autobiographical memories. “These are all sorts of distractions that can take you away from the thing you’re trying to do,” he said.
So what is the perfect balance of music and work? “If I was to write a prescription for having somebody select music that is effective in helping you study, it would be to select music for the appropriate emotion,” said Russo. “That would be music that conveys high energy levels and [will put you in the right] mood.”
In light of this, listening to music while studying is naturally harder for some. According to a study published by Sage Journals, introverts have a harder time concentrating while listening to music compared to extroverts. This is most likely because introverts are more easily overstimulated.
Russo says the way around this is making sure introverts avoid overstimulation. One way to do this is by listening to music intermittently rather than concurrently during their study sessions.
With exam season just around the corner, it may be best to put down the headphones. “The challenge with selecting music while you study is that, while it can maintain optimal energy and mood level that you want for peak studying, it can also be detrimental because it grabs your attention,” said Russo.