Music whilst studying? The good, the bad and the ukulele

We all have our own different methods of studying and revising. Some people work with music in the background, from lo-fi beats and jazz to rap. Others prefer having video content on in the background, whether that is the billionth re-run of Friends or live sport. On occasions, rare souls have been known to study in complete silence...

With all these choices of what to (or not to) listen to, we need to know; which works best? So that we can all maximise our grade potential. First off let's have a gander at the benefits and the drawbacks of listening to music before looking deeper into the best genres shall we?

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Benefits of studying with music

  • Soothing music that has calming tones and melodies can be used to relax the mind, helping to combat stress or anxiety that is common around studying for upcoming exams, so whilst it may not help you learn a specific definition, it can put you in a state of calm meaning you are more likely to retain certain information.

  • Motivation can be hard to come by, especially for those stupidly long revision sessions where seasons pass outside. During these sessions, however, listening to music in the background can help aid mental endurance, keeping the mind refreshed over countless hours.

  • Ever wondered why we learn the alphabet as a song? Because music actually helps with memorisation as it releases endorphins in our brains, boosting our mood and aiding with memory formation.

Drawbacks of studying with music

  • Whilst we all love to believe we are excellent multitaskers, this isn't really the case. Music with lyrics or songs with extravagant tunes and bass can actually be incredibly distracting, even if we don't realise it. This makes reading and writing tasks less efficient and we absorb less of the information available to us.

  • Music that is very agitated or moody has adverse effects on our moods, making us despondent and causing us to lose focus quickly.

  • If you use music in order to memorise certain information, actually producing that information in a real-life context like an exam is actually incredibly difficult without the music, making it an inefficient way of memorising information.


The research shows that instrumental music is the most effective when studying and working (Scott et al., 2013). Instrumental music does not include any lyrics or voices – only the instruments – making it perfect for someone who wants a study playlist. Music without lyrics allows students to focus on their work and concentrate on their studies (Hargreaves and North, 2008). It enables them to block out any distractions, like if they were listening to rap or pop music with many different singers.

Listening to your favourite form of instrumental music will also improve concentration as you identify with the song choice more than those listened to by others. (Gfeller et al., 1985). It is a proven fact that a student's concentration levels fall when they listen to music with lyrics (Hargreaves and North, 2008). However, those listening to familiar music – not instrumental – will take longer to understand the lyrics and may become distracted as a result.


Another innovative study shows that listening to classical music also has the same effect (North et al., 1994). Plus, there is an added benefit of playing classical music whilst studying as it reduces stress levels (Smith et al., 2009), meaning you will feel less anxious and more at ease. It also improves memory recall (Rauscher et al., 1993) which is vital when needing to remember important facts or information for upcoming examinations.

Even listening to a little bit of classical music, such as that in the background of a retail store, can increase productivity by 15% (Husain et al., 2008). Imagine being more productive when shopping, that's a frightening thought!

Popping on your favourite Mozart tune will improve your memory and activate different sections of the brain that you may not have used when revising. By listening to classical music, you are stimulating your intellect to greater levels which will help with tasks that require complex thinking. This is due to classical music making the brain work harder because it asks more of the listener mentally (Anton, 2010).


The strange genre of ukulele music should not be overlooked either; this was first studied by Frances H. Rauscher in 1996 where she discovered significant increases in spatial reasoning after just fifteen minutes of listening to this particular type of music (Rauscher et al., 1996). Spatial reasoning is essentially the ability of an individual to visualise and mentally manipulate 2D and 3D objects (Parsons, 1996). The study was then replicated in 2011 by Glenn Schellenberg who discovered that if students listened to ukulele music it significantly improved their mood (Schellenberg et al., 2011).


With all these great benefits available when listening, is there any reason why students would not want to listen to background music? There is one drawback; concentrating on your studies can be less effective if you are constantly listening to music (North et al, 1997) so it is always important that there are breaks where students can just sit quietly and contemplate what they have learnt, boosting knowledge retention.

It is recommended that when you do listen to music when studying, you should spend no more than two hours doing so and that taking significant breaks can improve retention rates (Middle Tennessee State University, 2012).

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James Gurnett

28th January

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