Studying with background music: is it a good idea?

Student Life

Studying with background music: is it a good idea?

30 Nov, 2020

How many of you listen to background music as you prepare for an exam? Many students do, and they argue that it helps them “focus”. What does the scientific literature say about the effects of this habit on our study skills?

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We know that everyone’s musical choices are linked to peculiar neural activations and cognitive outcomes, which influence the physiological arousal, mood, attention, memory, and even academic performance.

However, the literature on the effects of listening to background music while studying is conflicting.


Positive and negative effects

Some research shows how listening to music that we like and with certain characteristics (eg classical music) can have positive effects on our levels of concentration and understanding of what we are reading, as well as on some memory processes.

This seems to happen through the mediation of mood and arousal changes that occur as we listen to a certain type of music.

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However, there are also studies that associate negative outcomes with the habit of listening to background music during study activities. For example, we know that our ability to understand what we are reading is compromised by listening to music that we do not like; to this it is preferable to study in silence.

We also know that sung pieces lead to greater levels of distraction from the study material, and negatively affect memorization. It is thought that this happens because our attention is limited, and the processing of information from the sung piece interferes with the processing of the material we are studying.

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A question of individual characteristics

An element that has emerged from the literature is that some individual characteristics can modulate the effect of listening to music in the background on study activities.

For example, as mentioned before, our level of appreciation of a certain musical style, but also our musical skills: it seems that for musicians there is a greater interference of music with other activities, including study ones.

Some authors have hypothesized that personality may also play a role, and there is some evidence that very extroverted students are less distracted by listening to background music while studying.

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In conclusion, this is an area where research has yet to give us some answers. In the meantime, in our study days, you can choose silence or the music you like, preferably not a sung piece.



Written by

Valentina Tobia
Valentina Tobia

Valentina is a psychologist, with a PhD in Experimental Psychology, Linguistics and Cognitive Neuroscience; since 2019 she has been a researcher at the UniSR Faculty of Psychology. She deals with learning processes in preschool and school age, both considering the typical development and in relation to specific learning difficulties and disorders. She also does research in the field of school well-being and the effects of stressors in the school context. She carries out clinical activities at the Development Psychopathology service of the San Raffaele Turro Hospital and collaborates with various schools as a school psychologist and trainer.

Visit the author's page

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