Can Music Help You Study?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 16, 2021
4 min read

Some people swear by listening to music while studying or working. Other people find music or any noise to be too distracting. Scientists don’t fully understand how music affects the brain and learning, but it does have benefits.

In the 1990s, a study showed that listening to classical music, specifically Mozart’s sonata for two pianos, improves spatial reasoning skills and test scores. Spatial reasoning is the ability to find and move in space, draw relationships between objects, and problem solve. This improvement from classical music became known as the Mozart effect. ‌

There is a lot of debate about whether music can stimulate brain activity connected to skills. Many people claim that listening to classical music makes you smarter. While some later studies prove that classical music can increase spatial reasoning, others show that it doesn’t. ‌

Either way, the Mozart effect is temporary and is thought to improve your mood rather than increase intelligence.

After the Mozart effect, other research established the Blur effect. In this study, kids who listened to a British pop group called Blur while completing a test did better than those who listened to classical music or no music. This effect was greater than the Mozart effect, and researchers suggested it was because young people like pop music better than classical. ‌

This evidence suggests that music is more likely to benefit your studying and your performance if you enjoy it. It’s still considered to be related to a better mood rather than an effect on your intelligence or ability. 

Exams and deadlines can lead to high stress, which can affect your studying. Stress around the time of learning can improve your ability to make memories, but it also harms your ability to retrieve those memories. ‌

This means that while stress might help you store knowledge, it can also stop you from accessing it. This might cause problems remembering during exams, leading to poor performance. ‌

Ongoing stress can harm your health and lead to:

  • Anxiety 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble thinking
  • Worry
  • Lowered productivity‌

Listening to music can help you relax and lower stress, which can help you as you study. A Russian study found that listening to music for one hour a day causes brain changes that suggest greater relaxation.‌

Another study found that people listening to classical music had lower blood pressure than those listening to jazz or pop music or no music at all. 

Dynamic variations within music can also affect you as the sound resonates in your brain. The more varied and dynamic the music, the more enjoyable it is. ‌

This happens because your mirror neurons respond to dynamic music and change your brain rhythms, which affect how you feel. These neurons fire slowly when you listen to slow music and quickly in response to a faster tempo.‌

Listening to slow tempo, soft, and quiet music can help with relaxation. This can help you study or if you have trouble sleeping because of study and test anxiety.‌

But music with faster beats and louder sections can make you alert and motivated. This can help you when you’re tired or overwhelmed and avoid studying.‌

To keep yourself motivated, try listening to faster music on your study breaks. Add in exercise or a snack to keep your energy up, to stay motivated, and to relieve stress. 

Music can also affect your focus and attention both positively and negatively. A study from France showed that playing background classical music during a one-hour lecture helped students perform better on a quiz than those who listened to the lecture without music.‌

Other studies show that background music with lyrics can affect worker attention. Listening to music with lyrics was more likely to cause distraction and problems with concentration. Working memory and reading comprehension also get worse, leading to trouble understanding what you're reading. ‌

To get the most benefit from your music, listen to music you enjoy. Classical or instrumental music with guitars or other string instruments might be less distracting, but you can use anything that’s not too fast or too wordy. Avoid any swelling orchestra music and loud songs as these might be more distracting.  

While the effects of music on your brain and learning are not fully clear, it can help with mood and relaxation. Not everyone responds to music the same way, though. If you find music with lyrics distracting, try listening to soft instrumental music instead. ‌

There are times when your mood and stress might be signs of a mental health problem. Talk to your doctor if you have ongoing mood problems that are affecting your school performance.