With a long study session ahead of you, your first instinct may be to whip out your headphones. However, recent psychological research suggests that we should think twice before tuning in to the first thing on our playlist. While research into the psychological effects of music is still in its infancy (and is often contradictory), here we're going to go over some generally accepted facts about music processing, and its effects on your cognitive performance.
Fact 1: Listening to music is never a completely passive activity
Sure, being at the receiving end of a song isn't nearly so demanding as solving a math equation or writing an essay, but your brain must still use energy to process all the sound signals entering your nervous system. Even if you're not paying a whole lot of attention to a piece of music, your brain is still churning away beneath your level of awareness. Therefore, keep in mind that when you listen to music while studying, you are engaging in two activities at once - i.e. you're multitasking. Thus, while music may increase your energy levels and raise your mood, thereby improving your mental processing abilities, your brain must still allocate some resources to digesting the music.
Fact 2: Listening to music can create interference
Music not only uses up processing energy, but it can also create interference with other mental activities involved in studying. Lyrics, for example, activate language centers in the brain, which are also involved in reading and writing. This can create cross-interaction between the lyric processing and the reading/writing activity. According to Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University, "Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you're writing or reading. Probably less of an effect on math, if you're not using the language parts of your brain."
Fact 3: Music creates a context-dependent learning scenario
Research has found that people are better at recalling information in environments resembling those in which they learned the information. Therefore, if you listen to music while studying, you have a better chance of recalling that information if you listen to the same music during the exam. This, of course, is often impossible. Therefore, the phenomenon of context-dependent learning points to a possible drawback of listening to music while studying. Whether or not this drawback outweighs all of the potential benefits of this activity is a different question.
Fact 4: Listening to music may be motivating and mood-elevating. But we're not sure.
A study published in "Psychology of Music" in 2005 concluded that workers listening to music had higher productivity levels than those who didn't. The researchers speculated that the music heightened the workers' mood, thereby increasing their motivation. Therefore, even though music may create some degree of interference with other tasks, and uses up mental processing resources, the net effect may sometimes be to improve concentration and motivation. However, not all research has agreed with the aforementioned study, and some researchers have found that music tends to be more distracting than beneficial. Therefore, the answer is inconclusive. More than likely, the effects of music on productivity vary according to the individual person, the type of work being carried out, and to the genre/intensity/complexity of the music. Softer, more ambient music is often suggested as leading to more effective studying than louder, more lyric-heavy music.
So keep an eye out for the latest research in this fascinating and ever-evolving area. The answers we're all waiting for may be lurking just around the corner.