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The Sound Of Musing – How Does Music Affect Our Studying?

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0. The image has been significantly cropped and compressed.

Roar writer Rena Hoshino tells us about the music that people listen to as they study and its effects on their work. 

With the rise of streaming services and the student discounts on subscriptions to apps like Spotify, music has become a much larger part of our day-to-day lives. When it comes to students, scholars Johannes Beentjes, Cees Koolstra, and Tom van der Voort found that of a pool of 1,700, 82% liked to complete schoolwork with some form of audio media playing. The newfound freedom of university also provides students with an opportunity to grab a coffee, visit their favourite study space, and listen to music as they work.

But how exactly does music affect us when we study? This topic has been frequently approached by academics, with a number of studies being conducted, replicated, and recorded over the years. Largely, music can prove to be distracting for concentration and focus, with vocal music being the primary cause of distraction, followed by nonsensical or instrumental music. It has also been seen that students generally perform better on a reading comprehension test when working in silence, according to a study conducted by Peter Tze-Ming Chou. However, music was found to be helpful for those who are more distractible, satiating what Hans Eysenck dubs “stimulus hunger”. In particular, listening with headphones enabled the blocking out of potentially distracting external stimuli. Richard Uhrbrock found that this was also true for menial, repetitive tasks in the workforce and increased productivity. To put it simply, the general consensus has been a mixed bag; it seems that the impact of music on studying depends on what kind of studying is being done, and what genre of music is being engaged with.

I myself listen to video game music with no lyrics (Minecraft, Undertale, Firewatch, etc.) when studying. However, during exam season, I found myself becoming stressed by the background music, so I opted to work in silence instead. This experience aligns with the distinction between non-level, surface-level, and deep-level forms of studying defined by Hay. During surface-level study, a student will absorb new information but not combine it with prior knowledge whereas, during deep-level study, a student will learn new information and link it to prior knowledge in an organised manner. So, a student doing surface-level study will memorise study material, but not weigh each detail’s importance (effective for simpler tests such as multiple-choice), whereas a student doing deep-level study will focus on the respective significance of the details they learn as well as concepts within the material (effective for longer tests with essay questions). Non-level studying is when little to no information is retained. Michael S. Widerman theorises that the level of study dictates how much attention is required, meaning that music will become more intrusive the more in-depth the studying goes.

In the interest of this article and topic, I asked a few students of different degrees what music they listened to whilst studying:

  • Classical music, anything without lyrics – International Relations and Politics Student
  • Mario music to kickstart motivation when stuck in a rut, or other music that heightens confidence – Law Student
  • Prefer to work in silence – Geography Student
  • Synthwave, video game music, movie soundtracks – Engineering Student
  • Video game music, indie music – Computer Science Student

Though this is a very small pool of people which cannot fully represent what students in these degrees tend to listen to, it does give us an indication that, despite the suggestions of its negative impact, students often prefer to listen to music while studying and have found ways to enable their best studying mindset while doing so. Self-selected music tends to relax people before and after stressful tasks and can heighten both mood and self-esteem, so it makes sense that people listen to music when studying, as university can be a stressful and unfamiliar environment.

University, beyond studying, is a place where you can connect with new people and explore new environments at your own comfort. Music can help you retain a familiar aspect of your life throughout this transition, and give you opportunities to find people with similar tastes, while also elevating your mood when slogging through sleepless nights. So, to all the freshers and students returning to the academic grind once again, good luck and see you on Spotify Wrapped day.


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