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How Music Can Help You Study

Theresa Schempp
By Theresa Schempp
Mike Sanders
By Mike Sanders

When it comes to studying for an exam, many students find that one of the best ways to stay focused no matter where they are is through listening to music. One study found that people who listen to music in either a casual or focused way had higher scores for mental wellbeing and reduced levels of anxiety.1

Benefits of Listening to Music When Studying

The benefits of music have been recognized for centuries, with cultures around the world using the beat of drums or vocals to aid in relaxation or meditation.2 Music-based activities in early childhood education have proven to support self-regulation, cognitive and intellectual development, literacy, and language.3 No matter their age, students can continue to benefit from music to help their academic performance. Every student is different in how they learn and study, so their music preferences can also vary.

“Folks respond to music differently,” says Phyllis Medina, PhD, program director of psychology at University of Maryland Global Campus. “One needs to think about what music they enjoy. For example, traditional classical is not for everyone, but soundtracks from Destiny or Skyrim might do the trick.”

Medina says finding the right soundtrack and music genres can help students in their academic journeys.

“Studying can be stressful, and excessive anxiety can hinder learning and memory consolidation,” says Medina. “The right choice of music, such as instrumental or ambient music, can help block out distractions, improve concentration, and maintain attention during study sessions.”

Studying to Instrumental and Ambient Music

Instrumental music strips the vocals from a piece, leaving only the sound from the instruments. Any song can become instrumental, so students have a never-ending list of songs they can listen to during their study sessions. Classical music, such as by Mozart, is also completely instrumental and a great choice to listen to when studying. 

“Instrumental or familiar music can be beneficial because it reduces the likelihood of getting caught up in lyrics or unfamiliar rhythms,” says Medina. “It does not require switching attention from the song to the words one is processing while reading or attempting to write.”

Ambient music is a form of instrumental that accentuates textures, mood, background noise, and atmosphere of a given place. For example, you may find a playlist called “Coffee Shop Ambiance,” which not only has music you would expect to hear in a coffee shop such as acoustics, but also the sounds of an espresso machine, cups clattering or even a low tone of other people who would be sitting in the coffee shop with you. These sounds are muted so that they become part of a background, and it can create a calming effect for many people. 

Ambient music may be perfect for students who prefer a mix of both music and white noise sounds. Many people have found it to be the perfect medium between listening and not listening to music. Some ambient backgrounds you can search for on music streaming sites such as YouTube include “Cozy Reading Nook by the Fireplace,” “Library Sounds,” or “Rainy Jazz Café." If you’re a lover of fantasy books and movies, you can even find ambient music such as “Gryffindor Common Room,” “The Shire in Winter,” or “Hogwarts at Midnight.”

The Optimal Way to Listen to Music While Studying

Whichever genre you choose to listen to, there are certain things to keep in mind to best utilize music while you’re studying. One of the most important things to keep in mind is the volume with which you play the music.

“With the use of earbuds and headphones, it is important to note that even calm music is a distraction if it is too loud,” says Medina. “A moderate audio level will help avoid overpowering focus.”

It’s also important to consider the complexity of structure and lyrics.4 If you listen to a song that has creative riffs, or a song where you know all the lyrics, it can pull your focus to the music and away from the information you’re studying. This is why instrumental or ambient music, which can be repetitive and tends to not have any lyrics, can be optimal for studying.

Music can also impact emotions. Students should be in a good head space when they study, so it’s important to choose music that keeps you in either a focused or positive mindset. Music has been proven to evoke nostalgia,5 so use it to your advantage with songs you enjoy.

It’s also important to take breaks while you’re studying, and the same applies to the music you’re listening to. When you take a study break, consider switching up your music to something else, or pausing the music altogether to give both your mind and ears a rest.

Regardless of what music you choose to listen to, you can succeed by earning your degree or certificate from UMGC. We’ve grown to become the largest online public university in the nation and are proud to have students share in earning an accredited education no matter their differences in music tastes. We offer more than 135 degrees or certificates in areas including business and management, cybersecurity, data analytics, education and teaching, healthcare and science, IT and computer science, liberal arts and communication, and public safety.

1 Mehegan, Laura, and G. Raineville. “Music Nourishes and Delights.” AARP, June 1, 2020.

2Increasing Cognitive Function with Binaural Beats.” Colorado State University Global, November 4, 2019.

3 Kirby, Anna L., Mariam Dahbi, Sarah Surrain, Meredith L. Rowe, and Gigi Luk. “Music Uses in Preschool Classrooms in the U.S.: A Multiple-Methods Study - Early Childhood Education Journal.” SpringerLink, February 7, 2022.

4 Herrity, Jennifer. “8 Types of Music to Increase Work Productivity | Indeed.Com.” Indeed, February 27, 2023.

5 Sedikides, Constantine, Joost Leunissen, and Tim Wildschut. “The Psychological Benefits of Music-Evoked Nostalgia - Sage Journals.” The psychological benefits of music-evoked nostalgia. Accessed June 15, 2023.

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