Does Music Help You Study? How To Use Music For Exam Success

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Nearly every student is accused at some point of idling about listening to music instead of working hard on an assignment. Unsubstantiated protests that music helps put them in the right frame of mind for concentrating are usually bound to fall on tone-deaf ears. 

And when it comes to self guided study, whether you’re studying to pass CFA exams or working towards other qualifications, every advantage you can give yourself should be explored. If it’s possible to help yourself study more effectively, and to be more productive when doing so by listening to music, then that’s something you’d most likely want to be aware of. 

On the flip side, if you’re a keen music lover then it’s worth understanding whether your favorite artists are actually hindering your ability to learn.

Some people swear by listening to music while they study or work, and are sure that it helps them to pick up and remember new information, as well as helping them to concentrate and stay productive for longer periods. 

In the other camp are those who prefer to work in silence, or as close to silence as possible. For some people noises, including music, can be a distraction that takes their mind away from the task at hand. But who is right?

While there are a number of ways to improve study memory, is listening to music one of them? Does music help you study better and improve concentration?

The answers are not quite that straightforward, so let’s take a closer look at some of the latest research on this fascinating topic.


How music affects the brain

How music affects the brain

Generally, the brain processes speech, vocabulary and logic on the left side; while audio, abstract sounds and intuition are concentrated on the right. Unusually, music is a medium that is analyzed by both hemispheres at the same time. 

The processes involved in listening to music actually prompt the brain to perform at its most complete. 

Theoretically, music should produce many beneficial effects, encouraging alertness, improving cognitive response and even alleviating depression. Most importantly, it can make you love studying (!).

Music & dopamine

A study at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando has identified how music alerts the different lobes within the brain. For instance, the putamen, a small section located deep within the brain, responds to the rhythms found in music. It then releases dopamine, a chemical that’s known for its addictive properties. 

As a powerful neurotransmitter, dopamine enhances the sensations of pleasure and motivation; two essential ingredients for making your studies seem enjoyably addictive when listening to music. This is because if you listen to music that you enjoy when you study, your brain may come to associate the act of studying with the release of dopamine. 

However, while it’s great to be enthusiastic about studying, on its own this doesn’t necessarily mean that the music will help you perform any better (other than as a form of study motivation, which for some people is half the battle).

Does music wavelength improve study?

Does musical wavelength improve study?

Rhythm and dopamine also occur during binaural beats, the wavelengths that reach your ears. In music, binaural beats are usually relayed into each ear at different strengths. They are measured in Hertz (Hz) and encourage your brain to merge the two levels together into one coordinated wavelength that’s unique to your brain. 

Binaural beats essentially stimulate brain waves, including alpha, beta and theta. Respectively, these brain waves are responsible for relaxation, concentration and creativity. They should help you approach your studies in a calm, attentive manner while encouraging lateral thinking for imaginative problem solving, and help the brain to create new memories.

Delta brain waves

Delta brain waves are the least conducive to productive study sessions. They operate at the lowest frequency of all and encourage a meditative, soporific state that’s ideal when you’re in desperate need of high-quality sleep. 

Delta brain waves are fine when you want the ultimate relaxation. Consequently, for an effective bout of intense study, avoid any music that makes you feel drowsy. 

At the other end of the scale, it’s gamma brain waves that you should be actively pursuing. These operate at the fastest speeds of all, reaching up to 80 Hz.

Gamma brain waves

Gamma brain waves are thought to be associated with higher IQ levels and super fast thought processing. They also help improve awareness and intuition. Their effect on your memory and attention span are also significant, encouraging longer study sessions that combine with enhanced memory recall.

You can theoretically stimulate gamma waves whenever you reach a state of high awareness. It means some of the best music for studying may include tracks that produce a sense of exhilaration and excitement.

However, if you’re looking for the optimum way to use music to help you study, it’s worth paying close attention to the frequency of the sounds depending on what you want to achieve from your session. It has been observed, for example, that a difference of just 2 Hz can make the difference between an increase and a decrease  in verbal recall ability.

How does music affect different personalities

How does music affect different personalities?

Music means many things to different people, but does music help you focus and improve your concentration? Personal taste and the situation you’re in obviously affect the choices on your playlist, but what motivates each person’s selection? 

Your personal background and memories can sometimes have an effect. You might want to perpetuate music that made you feel happy when you were growing up or you might prefer to embrace the latest trends. 

A significant influence is how the binaural beats produce a unique wavelength in an individual brain.

It means the type of music that stimulates one person might have the opposite effect on someone else. 

However, it’s believed that your own personality can enhance or diminish your studious efforts when listening to music.

Extroverts

The extrovert personality is often depicted as fearless, noisy and ready for almost anything. Studying while listening to fast-paced tracks could be just the ticket for enhancing cognitive function and memory efficiency. 

Extroverts function best against a background of noise and interacting with high numbers of people. 

Studying while listening to energising music such as upbeat dance tracks may complement the extrovert personality.

Equally, background noise such as the hustle and bustle of a busy space might enable extroverts to tap into the energising atmosphere and enable them to focus with more clarity.

Introverts

If you or others see you as an introvert, you’re typically quiet and sensitive. You’ll gain your energy by mixing with fewer friends in much more subdued circumstances than an extrovert. 

If you’re introverted, music could prove unhelpful to your studies unless you listen to the right type. Think of more soothing, melodic tunes that won’t startle or distract you while you’re absorbing data from your study materials. 

However, that leads us to question whether music in itself is a help or a hindrance to successful studying.

Is listening to music while studying a distraction?

Is listening to music while studying a distraction?

A survey carried out at Maryland University in Baltimore discovered that certain components within music are more distracting than others. 

A total of 32 students completed a series of intermediate mathematical problems while listening to music. If the volume was set high, everyone, including extroverts, didn’t achieve such good results as when the volume was low. 

Interestingly, students identified as introverts scored more marks when the tests were completed in complete silence. Therefore, music could be a distraction in certain circumstances.

Do songs with lyrics help you study?

A similar experiment in Australia set out to discover whether lyrics made any difference when listening to the best music for studying. 

Words that are more skilfully crafted around rhythms and beats appear to be far more of a distraction than generalised vocals. 

Schlager songs that emphasise catchy rhymes and melodies are more difficult to ignore as your brain begins to anticipate where the matching words might next appear. 

Think of Kylie’s “I should be so Lucky” or any singalong Abba track, such as “Money, Money, Money” and you’ve got a good idea of what’s meant by catchy distraction.

Do rap and hiphop make good study music?

Even more effective at interrupting your studies is hip-hop and rap. This musical genre effectively intertwines words and music to form a complete package that can easily stop your studies in their tracks. 

Rappers could also have you reaching for your dictionary, as they are famous for using more words than any other singers in their pieces.

Eminem, alias Marshall Bruce Mathers II, is thought to have the highest operational vocabulary of all with at least 8,818 words. Every eleventh word in his lyrics is estimated to be a brand-new one. (That should get you counting!) Kanye is trailing way behind with a vocabulary of 5,069 words. 

However to put this into perspective, compare Ye’s rhyming prowess with old hands like the Beatles from sixty years back. They scraped by with a vocabulary of just 1,872 words. Perhaps rap is proof that educational standards have actually improved over time.

The lyric-packed songs of many rap artists therefore demand quite a bit of attention to follow, and so might be a distraction to a lot of people. However, laid back hip hop instrumental tracks could be useful as an aid to focus.

Does the tempo of music affect concentration?

Another factor in cognitive enhancement is how fast or slow your chosen study music happens to be.

A super fast tempo can leave you susceptible to an earworm. This secretive creature is a small snippet of tune or lyric that remorselessly repeats over and over in your brain. It was identified by the psychologist, Dr. Cornelius Eckhart in 1979 and has blighted many study sessions ever since. 

Apparently, the remedy could be to listen to the tune in its entirety, chew gum or simply find another piece of music, preferably one that’s played at a slower speed. 

Music to study to is arguably more beneficial when it has a leisurely pace, helping to stimulate your brain but not cause overstimulation to the point of loss of concentration on the study topic you’re trying to focus on.

Does classical music improve studying?

Does classical music help you study?

According to a 2007 Stanford University research, classical music is tops when choosing effective study music.

One of the main benefits however doesn’t come directly from the music itself. Instead, classical music helps the areas of the brain responsible for memory and focus become more active. When the music stops, or pauses between tracks, the brain is then wired for an increase in concentration.

Similar research in France compared the performances of two sets of students listening to the same lecture. When they answered questions, the group who heard classical music during the lecture scored much higher marks than the students who listened in silence. 

A key factor of an orchestral piece is its highly organised structure. It’s generally believed to help your concentration by creating an atmosphere of relaxation.

Some students find listening to classical music while studying more beneficial towards the end of their session. As well as helping recall, it’s also supposed to be more effective at promoting restful sleep by calming your brain after cramming it with so many facts.

The truth about the Mozart Effect

The theory of the Mozart Effect appeared in 1991. It suggests that listening to Mozart’s classical music can improve your brain power, particularly if you listen to his works from an early age. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was a child prodigy who was composing at the age of five. 

The theory obviously worked for him, leading to an estimated IQ level of 155, just five short of genius. But can Mozart’s concertos help you study?

Many misconceptions have arisen from the theory, including getting a permanent boost to your IQ level if you listen to Mozart for just ten minutes each day. Many studies, such as the 1993 research undertaken by Rauscher and Shaw, concluded Mozart’s music could lead to an increase in spatial reasoning. This is a loose term for general cognitive function in children and adults.

The theory created widespread media hype, prompting the Governor of Georgia in the US to bestow CDs of Mozart’s music to every baby born during 1998. However, since the concept of the Mozart effect took off, subsequent studies have found that there is no direct link between listening to this music and an increase in IQ, undermining the seemingly ‘easy win’ option of popping some Mozart on your playlist and watching the top exam scores come rolling in.

While the wider claims of the Mozart Effect are largely unfounded, is it effective music to study to? Quite possibly.

One benefit could be Mozart’s effortless style that’s relatively easy on the ear, and classical music in general could be a good option for your study soundtrack. So while Mozart specifically might not see you suddenly being able to tackle those tricky study topics without any effort, for most people it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a listen.

Mozart’s compositions are also judged easy to perform, but how does music help you focus on your studies if you actually play it yourself?

Can learning an instrument help you study?

Can learning an instrument help you study finance?

Venturing along a slightly different path for a moment, it’s worth considering the effect that learning to play and create music yourself, rather than simply consuming music, can have on your ability to study.

After all, if we’re considering whether music can be a helpful study aid, it makes sense to review all aspects and identify where music can offer a distinct advantage.

Research at the University of British Columbia has discovered that any student who actively studies music can achieve much higher results in mathematics, English and science subjects. 

If you have learned to play an instrument from a very young age, you could be academically ahead of your peers by as much as one year. There are many benefits to be gained from learning to play a musical instrument at any age. 

Combining a short music course with your main studies may therefore help improve discipline, cognitive processes and mathematical ability. It can also give you an amazing sense of achievement.

While studying towards a CFA charter is often regarded as one of the toughest qualification routes around, and might not leave you with much time for hobbies, it’s also important to take some time away from studying to avoid burnout. Taking up a hobby that can help you to relax while also helping you to study more effectively could therefore be a great way to kill two birds with one stone.

The psychology of musical influence

The psychology of musical influence

Background music is used in all walks of life. It helps create pleasant associations and emotional responses to direct thoughts and actions. For example, when you go shopping it’s easy to see how different retail outlets use music to influence their clientele. 

Visit a trendy boutique whose target demographic is well under 25 years of age and you’ll hear music that’s in vogue. Similarly, supermarkets and furniture shops target the age groups they believe have the most spending and decision making potential. 

Consequently, you’ll hear more nostalgic hits from 30 years back, reminding ‘older’ consumers of the times when they too were young and carefree. It generally puts them in a positive mood, encouraging them to treat themselves and buy more than they need.

The same psychology goes for study music too. Choose wisely and you can have a background that provides energy combined with relaxation. 

Being relaxed is all well and good, but does music help you focus? In a way, yes. It can help to calm anxieties and help you concentrate on the task in hand. A bit like meditation, the right background music can also stop your mind from wandering while you study, making it easier to focus on what it is you’re aiming to learn about or revise. 

However, there’s no universal playlist that suits every student. It largely depends on your personal preference and how your favourite tracks complement the discipline of study without distracting your attention. 

Even if you adore a certain music genre, it might not be the most helpful with your concentration!

What is the best music for studying?

What is the best music for studying?

When it comes to selecting the best music for studying, there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution out there. 

However, when weighing up the options and the information available, there are a few genres and styles that might be your best bet to help enhance focus, aid with recall and improve productivity while you study.

Classical music for studying

There’s not just Mozart to choose from in this extensive category. From Bach and Beethoven to the contemporary styles of Philip Glass and Ludovico Einaudi, you’ll never be lost for inspirational instrumentals to encourage your concentration while studying. 

With its ability to prep your brain for recall, classical is one of the top contenders for the best type of study music around.

Here’s our Spotify classical music playlist as a start:

Chill lo-fi for studying

Ambient electronic music that concentrates on chill, hip hop and low fidelity (lo-fi) beats is ideal for relieving tension and freeing your mind of distractions. 

The down tempo rhythms and easy listening qualities of this type of music have turned the genre into one of the most popular forms of study music, with some great pre-made playlists available on the leading streaming platforms.

This is my favorite genre personally, and I frequently play this huge lo-fi playlist hours on end on loop:

Electronic Dance Music For Studying

You’re sure to find something that boosts your studying in this category. It includes high-energy, pulsating rhythms that could encourage any sluggish brain to liven itself up. 

Sub-categories include trance, house, techno, synthpop and much more. You can make your own playlist with tracks of varied pace to add a refreshing interest to your study sessions. And as a lot of electronic music is mostly instrumental, you don’t need to worry about too many complex lyrics disrupting your concentration.

Spanish guitar or flamenco for studying

Some students and exam candidates are enjoying this form of melodic background music as their preferred study soundtrack. Not only does it remind you of holidays in the sun to make you feel uplifted, but it creates a soothing and relaxed atmosphere. 

It even has bursts of spontaneity that can be quite inspirational when you need to regain your concentration in the middle of a long study session, helping to keep your mind sharp if you start to lose focus.

Jazz music for studying

There’s nothing so soothing as a melodic jazz track to calm your brain when you’re piling in loads of information. It has plenty of rhythms and muffled percussion interspersed with amazing saxophone and trumpet solos. Jazz also has a certain element of randomness. While at the extreme this could be a distraction, in a lot of cases it can prevent your brain from finding patterns too easily and trying to predict what will come next.

Jazz tracks should help those binaural beats work their magic on your gamma brain waves. Look for music by current greats, such as the saxophonist Tony Kofi, or from a previous generation, Miles Davis.

Here’s our Spotify smooth jazz playlist as an example:

Instrumental or progressive rock for studying

Progressive rock music appeared in the late 1960s when bands such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin began to make an impact. While this genre might not suit everyone when they are trying to concentrate, it’s worth checking out as a left-field choice to give your study sessions a surreal enhancement. 

Try to pick tracks that are more instrumental focused, with uplifting waves of sound that can help improve your mood.

I actually have 3 categories of instrumental music with varying tempo and theme to share here: 2 types of movie and a video game soundtrack playlist.

Indirect benefits of music on studying

The indirect benefits of music on studying

Using music as a study aid is one thing, but it’s not necessarily the whole picture. Listening while you work can potentially help you to get the most from your session, but there are additional benefits offered by music than simply enabling your brain to take in and be able to remember information directly.

Music to reduce stress

A lot of people listen to music to relax, and music has been shown to be able to reduce stress. According to a study carried out in 2013, listening to relaxing music helps individuals to react to stress and recover from stress inducing events more quickly.

Feeling less stressed can help us to be better organized, better able to concentrate and less likely to make mistakes. So listening to music either while you study, before you study or even directly before an exam might help you to perform better by making you feel less stressed.

Music to ease anxiety

For some people, the pressure of sitting exams can lead to a noticeable increase in anxiety. And anxiety is often regarded as a concentration killer, amongst other things. However, music therapy has been shown to have a significant positive effect on anxiety and help people to relax.

Similarly to using music to deal with stress, a well crafted playlist can potentially help to reduce anxiety which in turn may lead to more productive study, and help the brain to improve recall.

The track “Weightless” by Marconi Union is often reported as being the most relaxing song ever written. And while it might not be one you want to listen to while you study due to it being perhaps a little too relaxing, it could come in useful to help manage anxiety beforehand, in turn helping you to get the most out of your study sessions.

Music to relax & improve sleep

While there are many things you can do to help you study, getting enough sleep is perhaps one of the most important.

As many of us know, being overly tired or worn out can lead to a drop in performance in many aspects of our lives. From negatively impacting our ability to learn and to concentrate, to being a real sapper of motivation, tiredness is not the friend of productive study. And as any busy professional will attest to, a sleepless night can make a huge difference to the way they feel about completing work tasks the next day.

However, the right kind of music has been linked to improved sleep, as well as reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Using music as a tool to relax and get better quality sleep, even if you don’t listen while studying, can provide a benefit to your productivity, concentration and ultimately the quality of studying you do.

Can music improve exam performance?

Does music help you study better for exams?

While everyone is different, and responds to music in different ways, the general view is that you can potentially improve your studying while listening to music compared to revising in complete silence. 

Study music should help focus your concentration by influencing the patterns within your brain.

To make the most of those highly beneficial gamma waves, you need music with binaural rhythms that stimulate your unique brain structure. Choose music that makes you feel content and alert.

The best advice is to generally avoid lyrics, especially the complex rhymes of fast-paced rap, although you could of course be the exception to the rule. 

Musical tempo in general is reckoned to be more effective for studying if it’s slower or at least less explosive. Even though many experts rate classical music highly as a study aid, it still depends on your own taste and introvert or extrovert personality.

And even if listening to music while you study doesn’t directly impact your performance when it comes time to sit your exams, there are plenty of benefits associated with listening which can. From feeling more relaxed and being better equipped to manage stress, to making you more inclined to get some extra study time in, there are various ways in which music is good for us, and in turn good for helping us achieve what we set out to do.

Your choice in study music might not be the trendiest or even match what your friends are listening to. However, the best music for studying should help you as an individual feel inspired, alert and relaxed; whether you’re making the most of the best CFA study materials online, or wading with ease through volumes of revision notes.


Hope you found the guide above interesting and useful. What is your favorite study music type? Let me know in the comments below.

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