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How the Right Music Can Make or Break Your Next Study Session

February 3, 2022

How the Right Music Can Make or Break Your Next Study Session

“Should I be listening to music while studying?” A simple question with a complicated answer. Plenty of articles and studies sit on either side of this endless debate claiming music can distract from the task or enhance focus depending on how you google it. Although there are many different variables that make it beneficial or detrimental, some of the more general issues tend to include the type of music, the volume, and the difficulty of the task.

Cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says that listening to music while we work makes us less productive while thinking it’s helping us to do more. “You’re having so much more fun that you feel more productive.” He goes on to suggest listening to music you enjoy 10-15 minutes before you start working. “[Music] can put you in a better mood and relax you. Your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives you a ‘warm feeling of pleasure.’ You may also get a hit of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which elevates your mood and can make it easier to focus.”1

Preparing to study by listening to your favorite music can boost your productivity but can hinder it if played while working. This makes sense to a certain point, but on the other side there are still claims that music can help while we work.

From Psychology Today, Joanne Carter, Ph.D., says that relaxing, repetitive, low-information-load background music can enhance performance on cognitive tasks. However, lyrics seem to play an important role, “Particularly when the music has lyrics, most popular music introduces a multitasking situation that interferes with reading comprehension and information processing.”2 She goes on to list Ambient music often used in meditation and Classical music played at softer volumes helped students to retain more information from recorded lectures.

Much of the controversy revolves not around whether music itself is good or bad for studying, but which types of music are interrupting vs supporting the mind’s processing as it focuses on a task. Anneli B. Haake, Ph.D., is a music psychologist who did her doctoral research on investigating the impact of music listening in offices. She has identified five different factors in determining whether music is distracting or helpful:

  1. Structure: Songs with a more complex musical structure, such as Frank Zappa’s “Muffin Man” can be more distracting to listeners when compared to songs with a simple three-chord structure, such as John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”.
  2. Lyrics: Lyrics can distract, as they cause you to focus on the message of the song and interrupt your train of thought.
  3. Listening habits: If someone is used to listening to music while working, it’s often more beneficial than distracting. The reverse is true as well.
  4. Difficulty of tasks: If a task requires more thought and focus, music can make it more difficult to work efficiently.
  5. Control: When music is imposed upon someone, it’s usually more distracting than if the person has a choice in the matter.3

These factors can help with figuring out which type of music, if any, are best for you to study with. Listening habits and Control are a part of why this question is so personalized, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all answer. Using all the information above should allow you to dial into the right type of music to maximize productivity.

The past few years have seen an explosion in a newer music genre gaining popularity for studying among college students. Lo-Fi Hip Hop checks off several of those characteristics previously mentioned to be beneficial as a study aide. Much of the genre is lyric-less, relaxing, simple/repetitive, and can have a calming effect on the mind.4

Ultimately the answer comes down to you. If you’re interested in exploring whether music can help you to study better, check out Carrington College’s new profile on Spotify where four different genres of study playlists are waiting for you to try: Classical, Lo-Fi Hip Hop, Jazz, and a collection of Meditative ambiance.

On a final note- From the same article that featured Dr. Haake, the author listed a few alternative suggestions including sounds from Nature, Cinematic or “Epic” music, and Video Game music.3 These are a little more varied but a curated playlist has been made on Spotify for each of them as well so you can make the decision to see if they work for you.



  1. A neuroscientist explains why you should stop listening to music while you work
  2. Is Background Music a Boost or a Bummer?
  3. 5 Types of Music That Will Increase Your Productivity, According to Science
  4. Beats to Relax/Study To: Contradiction and Paradox in Lofi Hip Hop
  5. Do you listen to music while studying? A portrait of how people use music to optimize their cognitive performance



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