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Are you studying for finals or completing your end-of-year projects? Got music? In a recent survey by Student Health 101, nearly 60 percent of students said that music elevates their academic performance. “Music has increased my focus on schoolwork and eases my mind before tests. I truly believe that without music, I wouldn’t be able to do the best I can at school,” says Katie, a student in Hays, Kansas.
Music can stimulate our thinking and sustain our attention for some study tasks, research suggests. In a 2012 study, students who attended a videotaped lecture with classical music playing in the background scored higher on a subsequent quiz than students who heard the lecture without music (Learning and Individual Differences). The pauses between musical movements may help our brains focus and organize new information, according to Neuron (2007).
It doesn’t all sound good, however. In 2011, researchers found that students who listened to music while trying to memorize a sequence of facts scored poorly on a test compared with those who studied in silence (Applied Cognitive Psychology). Another study suggested that fast, loud music reduced reading comprehension (Psychology of Music, 2011).
Be wary of musical distractions: lyrics, drama, a too-upbeat tempo, and high volume. “The ‘1812 Overture’ [by Tchaikovsky] would not be a good study aid, unless you were studying to be a demolitions expert,” Alan Chapman, a classical radio host and producer, told USC News.
In our survey, students recommended instrumental, classical, jazz, electronic, hip-hop, pop, and country. “Everyone has their own unique taste, so try a random playlist and see what gets you pumped, focused, relaxed, etc.,” says Logan, from Madison, Wisconsin. If you’re working on a creative task, try an ambient noise soundtrack (e.g., the Coffitivity app): A 2012 study found that the moderate background noise of a coffee shop or TV can enhance creativity (Journal of Consumer Research).
Students share: “My best study music”
“Classical music helps keep me relaxed and focused. I usually listen to Beethoven’s ‘Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2’ (‘Moonlight Sonata’). Piano sonatas and piano trios are the most relaxing of classical music.”
—Brittney, Conway, Arkansas
“Piano pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Satie. John Williams (not exactly classical) and Tchaikovsky are my favorite composers.”
—Jimmy, Norfolk, Virginia
“Yo-Yo Ma is a Chinese-American cellist, and an amazing one at that. The cello is my favorite instrument to listen to when I am studying, and then I play it again during the test to help me remember what I studied.”
—Katie, Hays, Kansas
“For studying I love listening to classical music or some good jazz like Miles Davis or Billie Holiday, the kind of easy music that doesn’t distract or take away from studying.”
—Jonnie, Boise, Idaho
“The band Explosions in the Sky is really great for homework. They have done several scores for TV and films, including Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor. It is essentially a modern version of classical music.”
—Brandt, Grand Forks, North Dakota
“Classical, smooth jazz, and mild electronica/dubstep without lyrics for studying; sounds that are fairly consistent, without a lot of tempo changes or super loud/soft parts.”
—Shari, Madison, Wisconsin
“Deadmau5 or even Bethel’s album Without Words relax me but also keep me focused on the work I need to do. The words can get distracting at times, so anything without words is wonderful.”
—Luciano, Newark, New Jersey
“I use the album Power Animals & Native Nights [Native American meditation music] while I do my homework. They are grouped into one video on YouTube.”
—Shane, Hays, Kansas
“Downtempo instrumental music is great to chill out to. ‘Homework Edits’ on YouTube are one-plus-hour-long tracks that are good for focusing on homework. Coffitivity is a cool app that operates on the science that a bit of background noise makes us more productive. SoundCloud is also great for discovering music you’ve never listened to before.”
—Alexa, Houghton, Michigan
And a reminder that what works for one doesn’t work for all:
Get help or find out more
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Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., & Scelles, N. (2012). Music during lectures: Will students learn better? Learning and Individual Differences, 22(2), 258–262.
Engel, A. (2014, December 5). Studying for finals? Let classical music help. USC News, University of Southern California. Retrieved from https://news.usc.edu/71969/studying-for-finals-let-classical-music-help/
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