Graduate Admissions Blog

Music & Studying

There are plenty of studies that link music to learning. This blog has even posted before about a whole course here at Bank Street, Music and Movement. In it, graduate students learn that incorporating music and movement into your lesson plans helps students acquire new skills and reinforce old ones.

But what about listening to music while you study or work on assignments? I decided to use the Bank Street ERIC database (I need the practice for my Foundations course anyway) to look for some information, and of course good ol’ google. Here’s just a bit of what I found:

A 2012 study of 98 university students found that male and female students scored better on tests in difficult subjects when listening to music of their choosing (Kesan, C., Ozkalkan, Z., Iric, H., & Kaya, D.). Interestingly enough, the study found that students who chose classical music as a first choice to take the exam with didn’t do as well as those who chose pop, or soft rock as a first choice. There are some other interesting details about how the choices were made, but on the whole, they found that listening to music while taking an exam led to better test scores.

Another study, Effect of music on reading comprehension of junior high school students, found the opposite (Anderson, Fuller, 2010): “Across all four experimental groups, the music environment score was lower than the non-music environment score.” This conflicts with the first study I pulled up first. But why? Maybe this has to do with the fact that the first study had students doing math work, while this is about reading. You are (or should be) definitely reading for comprehension when you study. Anderson and Fuller continue, writing that “overall, nearly three-quarters of the students (74.5%) did less well on the reading comprehension test while listening to lyrical music in the background, compared with students in the quiet environment.

I think that makes sense since it’d be hard to read for meaning if you were following along with the lyrics in a song. It’s kind of hard to not sing along to the hook in Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” amiright? Catchy stuff, super distracting… The study said they chose songs from the top 20 billboard music of that week, and what I am assuming is a typo in this published study says that the songs “did not contain fowl language or explicit lyrics” (pg. 5). Okay, so no songs about naughty birds, I suppose. That leaves out one Katy Perry song I can think of…

Edutopia is a fairly respectable resource for educational news and content, and they recommend not listening to music while you study. Here’s an article about how “researchers” at Spotify found that listening to music increases learning. While the article cites research and has a clinical psychologist’s name attached to it, you’ve got to wonder about a service that provides ad-driven free streaming music putting out a study advocating listening to music. Hmm…

Personally, I find that if I do have music on while reading or studying, it’s softer, and it contains little to no lyrics. Either that, or I have heard it so many times that the lyrics have just become more like instrumentation. With Radiohead, for instance, you can’t always discern the words anyway, or Andrew Bird, where lyrics come in and out of the music softly, with long expanses of instrumentals. Listening to jazz on pandora can be a little iffy. Any of the busy sounding saxophones of Coltrane or Charlie Parker bebop risks getting to be more of a distraction than a study aide for me. With pop music, forget it! I am particularly prone to the earworm phenomenon, and my studying is thrown out of the window as I begin to hum or sing the chorus. I think my main rule is that it can’t be lyrically driven and it can’t be too new.

As it seems to happen so often: to each their own. Feel free to share in comments section!



Kesan, C., Ozkalkan, Z., Iric, H., & Kaya, D. (2012). The Effect of Music on the Test Scores of the Students in Limits and Derivatives Subject in the Mathematics Exams Done with Music. Online Submission

Anderson, S. A., & Fuller, G. B. (2010). Effect of music on reading comprehension of junior high school students. School Psychology Quarterly, 25(3), 178-187. doi:10.1037/a0021213