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Does Listening to Music Help with Studying?

In the age of earbuds and wireless headsets, it is extremely common for teenagers to study while listening to music. “It helps me study better!” my kids will say. Can that be true? Is there evidence that listening to music while studying yields better results?

The Myth of Multitasking

As a matter of fact, science has quite a bit to say about this topic. The first thing we need to realize is that listening to music while studying is a form of multitasking. We might not consider it multitasking, as if studying is the only thing we are “doing” and listening to music is merely passive. Cognitively, however, our brains are very active when we listen to music. Both studying and listening to music use our mental energy. Cognitive psychologist Brian Anderson notes that attention is mental work. It requires energy to maintain and cannot be divided without depleting the limited amount we can allocate to any one thing. Anderson says:

“Multitasking is a fallacy; human beings are not capable of truly multitasking because attention is a limited resource, and you can only focus on so much without a cost. So when you’re doing two things at the same time, like studying and listening to music, and one of the things requires cognitive effort, there will be a cost to how much information you can retain doing both activities.” (source)

Anderson goes on to say that there is a link between how we learn material and how we recall it. We do a better job recalling information in the same environment in which we learned it. This means we will recall information more effectively at exam time if our study mimics the conditions of the exam. Since exams are typically held in quiet environments free of other sensory distraction, these are also the ideal conditions for study.

Sensory stimulation is a kind of mental work. Being stimulated in multiple ways distracts us. This is why when we are driving and listening to music, we turn down the music when we are trying to read signs or pay close attention to where we are going. Turning down the music helps divert energy from one sense (hearing) and direct it towards another (sight). Stimulating multiple senses at once is a form of multitasking, and psychology has convincingly demonstrated that multitasking is a myth. From a cognitive standpoint, a student will be able to focus more attentively on studies if they are doing so without auditory stimulation.

Is All Music Equally Distracting?

All sensory input uses up mental energy to some degree, but not all sensory experiences are equal. Is there any music that is less distracting?

Dr. Steven Smith, a cognitive neuroscientist for the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Texas A&M, says that if your teenager insists on listening to music while studying, certain types are better than others. Dr. Smith says that words are the most distracting thing about music. “I you want to listen to music while you study, try to listen to something that does not have words,” he recommends,  “or if it does have words, hopefully, it’ll be in a language that you don’t understand at all, otherwise that’s going to distract from the stuff you’re trying to study.” (source)

Music that is “new” also uses up more cognitive energy. When the brain encounters new stimuli, it pays closer attention to it, trying to scrutinize it and find out what it is. Listening to music that has never been heard will result in great distraction. Music that has been used many times before as background music is preferable to something novel.

In terms of genre, classical music or light jazz are the best, as these tend to lack the strong percussion sections that characterize most rock-based genres, making them less distracting (source). Essentially, music that could be termed “background music” is best.

Why Do Teens Like to Study to Music?

If the science suggests that studying to music is not as effective, why do teens like to do it? Why do they insist that it helps?

The fact is, our own self-reflection here is not always reliable. It often happens that we mistake how we feel for how well we do something; in other words, we think we are doing something well because we feel good while doing it. Listening to music makes us feel good, and ergo we may assume it helps us do whatever we are doing.

This is particularly true when doing homework or studying for an exam. Many teens find studying to be an inherently stressful situation. Studies suggest that music functions as a de-stressor, something that calms us and decreases our anxiety, even producing physical responses in how we manage our stress (source). Kids who find studying stressful believe music helps them study because they feel more relaxed when listening to music.

But feeling as relaxed as possible isn’t always the best atmosphere for cognitive attentiveness. For example, suppose my boss gives me a packet of information to look over in preparation for an important meeting the next day; suppose the information is of a technical nature requiring very detailed analysis. I need to set aside an hour to read through this packet and digest its contents. Suppose to do this, I curl up in a recliner in front of a roaring fire, drape an afghan over my lap, and get myself a mug of hot chocolate. Then, snuggled into my cozy chair before the crackling flames, I start to review the material. To be sure, I will be very relaxed. But how attentive do you think I will be? How many pages will I get through in that packet before I am so relaxed that my eyes are closed?

It is not always to our benefit to be as relaxed as possible when we study.

Positive Study Habits

The best way to study is to develop positive study habits: study in a quiet area that is free of distraction, somewhere comfortable but not so comfortable that it dulls your mind; break up study sessions into small, manageable chunks instead of prolonged sessions crammed at the end; study for comprehension instead of rote memorization; study consistently; get a parent or sibling to help you review. These practices can decrease the stress of studying without relying on music.


If your teen is insistent on listening to music while studying, there is a fantastic YouTube channel called Nemo’s Dreamscapes. Nemo’s Dreamscapes combines soothing background noises like rain or the humming of a car engine with gentle oldies music from the 1940s and 50s. It is meant to be soothing background music and functions quite well in this regard; there is also a channel called Catholic Lofi; “lofi” means “Low fidelity”; the music is not heavily processed and usually contains only a few elements, such as a synthesizer and digital beat. The Catholic Lofi channel has created various tracks to study to that are a good alternative for teens who aren’t into classical or jazz, sometimes incorporating chants or other Catholic themes.

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