Does your study playlist help you learn?
Updated: Oct 28, 2022
“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”
Background music is used for a variety of purposes, such as for setting the tone in films and video games, regulating mood while driving, or arousing energy while working out. Many students create and listen to “study playlists”, containing a range from calm, classical music to upbeat hyper-pop, in order to concentrate and increase productivity. This reasoning is often debated and is the subject of research on background music and learning. Is your study playlist really helping you learn?
Theories on music and learning
Even on a theoretical level, listening to background music produces opposing effects on learning. On one hand, the mood-arousal hypothesis suggests that listening to “enjoyable” music can alter a person’s mood and arousal, thereby benefiting learning. This is explained by the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which describes that the optimal amount of arousal can produce optimal performance (Herring & Scott). In other words, if a student is in a low arousal state (e.g., being tired or distracted), music can help increase excitability and improve concentration or performance. On the other hand, the cognitive learning theory discourages the use of background music due to the potentially negative effect on learning. It assumes that attempting to process various sources of unrelated information (auditory information and the learning task at hand) can lead to a “cognitive overload”. Because of a person’s limited attention capacity, their working memory would not be fully attentive to the task and thus reduce learning potential (de la Mora Velasco & Hirumi). This idea of cognitive overload begs the question if lyrical or instrumental music results in different performance, since lyrics may further distract processing ability. To determine how music can affect learning, researchers must examine the type of music and whether it produces a stronger effect in emotional arousal or cognitive overload in an individual.
Excitability or overload?
In a study investigating whether background music leads to cognitive overload (and poor performance) or emotional drive (and better performance if optimized under the Yerkes-Dodson curve) in various cognitive tasks, it was found that individual emotional arousal does not greatly affect performance. In other words, people with mid-level arousal do not benefit more from music than those with low or high levels of arousal, which contradicts other studies that predicted the Yerkes-Dodson law could be a factor in the relationship between musical arousal and performance. Rather than enhanced emotional arousal and performance, background music was found to result in cognitive overload and hinder cognitive task performance, such as memory recall. However, they explain that less cognitive tasks like housework, driving, and working out, were not studied and music may still benefit these situations (Rodel).
A literature review by de la Mora Velasco and Hirumi studied thirty publications on the characteristics of background music and its positive or negative effects on learning. They concluded that the effects of background music on learning are not conclusive, since studies
reported positive, neutral, and negative effects depending on the study (de la Mora Velasco & Hirumi). For example, Waterhouse’s 2006 study on completing visual-spatial tasks after listening to Mozart proposed that the aroused emotional state from background music benefits task performance and short-term learning. However, Waterhouse emphasized the lack of empirical evidence supporting this “Mozart effect” and recommended that future research investigates specific conditions in background music and their effects on learning (de la Mora Velasco & Hirumi). Other factors to consider include the type of music, the characteristics of the participant, the current emotional arousal and mood of the participant, the environment, and characteristics of the learning task (de la Mora Velasco & Hirumi).
Students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Previous research had already found that background music and noise negatively impact introverts’ cognitive performance, while there is no difference in performance between introverts and extraverts when studying in silence (Furnham & Strbac). Like music’s differential impact among introverts and extraverts, a 2020 study found that music has different effects on ADHD students and neurotypical students, who are defined by their “typical neurological development or function” (Brusie). Specifically, preadolescents with ADHD had improved reading comprehension with music, but neurotypical preadolescents had worse comprehension (Madjar et al). This study tested the effect of music type as well, listening to no music, calm music without lyrics, calm music with lyrics, and rhythmic lyrics with music. They found that students with ADHD performed better under all music conditions. Meanwhile, neurotypical students performed worse, although it was not statistically significant. There was no significant difference between the types of music and performance for the ADHD group, although reading comprehension with rhythmic music was slightly lower than other music conditions (Madjar et al). This suggests that like previous studies with neurotypical participants, the effect of music varies between groups and individuals, but the type of music may not be as relevant as previously thought based on neurotypical participants.
Since each students’ learning styles differ situationally (e.g., your current mood and excitability) and from person-to-person (e.g., personality and neurodevelopment), the common thread that researchers propose for studying in everyday life is to continue trusting your own self-defined habits and preferences for your study environment (Rodel). Professional training programs often suggest that ADHD students need a quiet, sterile study environment. Yet, “young adults with ADHD emphasize the need to find a match between their individual needs and the characteristics of the setting, which does not have to be quiet or deprived of any externa stimuli” (Madjar et al).
Clearly, more studies are needed to determine if ADHD students benefit from music while studying. The differing opinions of optimal study settings between professionals and students point toward the need to self-define the best study habits for yourself since the current research data suggests that we do not understand when and where using music during studying helps.
Written by Akane Shimoyoshi and edited by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD
Adrian Furnham and Lisa Strbac (2002) Music is as distracting as noise: the differential distraction of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Ergonomics, 45:3, 203-217.
Chaunie Brusie. “What does it mean to be neurotypical?” (2021) Healthline, reviewed by Dannell Roberts, 15 Nov.
Efren de la Mora Velasco, and Atsusi Hirumi. (2020) The effects of backgrou nd music on learning: a systematic review of literature to guide future research and practice. Education Tech Research Dev 68, 2817–2837.
Da’Naesha Herring and Jason Scott. (2018) The Effect of lyrical and instrumental music on reading comprehension tasks” Journal of Emerging Investigators, 30 Oct. 1-6.
Nir Madjar, Rami Gazoli, Iris Manor, Gal Shoval (2020) Contrasting effects of music on reading comprehension in preadolescents with and without ADHD. Psychiatry Res. Sep;291:113207.
Anna Tatiana Rodel. (2021) Listening to Background Music While Studying – Emotional Drive or Cognitive Overload? http://essay.utwente.nl/86593/1/R%C3%B6del_MA_BMS.pdf University of Twente, Netherlands.