Does music help or distract from studying?

Despite several studies examining cognitive performance under different conditions, the jury is still out on a final decision as to whether music improves the quality and efficacy of studying. 

Generally, a few benefits are easily visible.  For example, music can create a barrier between a student and their environment which makes it easier to ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand.  Thus, students who are studying in a busy home or library can isolate themselves from the world to concentrate (if the music they choose isn’t too distracting – more on this later).  Also, listening to calming music can help to reduce stress and anxiety while studying, promoting a more relaxed environment and therefore more effective learning. 

It is important to note that the type of music listened to by a student matters.  Listening to aggressive, loud or even just the student’s preferred music can disrupt learning.  Research suggests that if a student feels the need to listen to music, they should choose sedative over stimulating music since calming music has been shown to affect cognitive processing less negatively (Smith & Morris, 1977).  The reason a student should avoid listening to their favourite tracks is that the temptation to listen and pay attention to the music or sing along is stronger and therefore distracting. 

On the other hand, research suggests that silence is the most effective work environment.  Comparing students who have studied with music and without, generally those who study in silence are more effective with their study time.  Overall, it is agreed that listening to music inhibits the concentration during the process of reading and understanding (Odabaş et al., 2008: 438).   

As we can see, there are arguments for working both in silence and with music.  At the end of the day, you or your child should test to discover what works best.  If a silent work environment is not possible, relaxing music may be an effective means for a student to isolate themselves from surrounding distractions.  On the other hand, if a student studies while listening to music, they risk dividing their attention between what they see and what they hear, creating a less productive work environment.   

The key thing to remember is that all students are different.  Helping a student to responsibly discover their most effective study environment is more empowering than setting rules according to research or what works for someone else. 


A.S. Dolegui, 2013. The Impact of Listening to Music on Cognitive Performance. Inquiries Journal, 5(9). Accessed online: