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Music whilst studying: Are you losing your WAM?

For most students, a good Spotify playlist is a must-have for study. But is studying whilst listening to music a WAM killer?

photo of academic transcript on lined paper and musical notes

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

Rachmaninoff’s words float into my head whenever I am on the train in a thick sea of earbuds and headphones. An otherwise monotonous commute is sporadically broken by music leaking from them. The train is not the only place passionate music lovers thrive. USyd’s libraries are full of bon vivants listening whilst studying or even whilst watching lecture recordings. For most students, a good Spotify playlist is a must-have for study. But is studying whilst listening to music a WAM killer?

The first answer is perhaps unsurprising: Yes, music is distracting and therefore a detriment to your primary task of studying. But this position is far from clear. A deeper examination reveals that music can be a motivator and overall net benefit rather than an interference. With a divisive academic literature, the answer might require examining student opinions on an individual level.

I interviewed 23 undergraduate university students of varying ages and degrees to understand why students listen to music whilst studying. Their responses were then categorised into three common answers: students who avoided music whilst studying, students who listened for motivation, and students who listened for inspiration.

More than half the interviewees said they never listened to music whilst studying, completely abandoning it on everything from simpler tasks like making notes to more complex cognitive processes like research. Their reasons for avoiding music were diverse, including that music is sleep-inducing, and deep-rooted habits towards silent study. However, what unified all 13 responses was a common belief that music is a distraction, a claim grounded in current academic literature. A 2014 Cardiff Metropolitan University study found that listening to lyrical or instrumental music whilst answering questions produced a poorer performance than completing the questions in silence. With a sample group of 30 students, they identified that background music “impaired seriation (serial recall or mental arithmetic) and semantic processing (reading comprehension)”.

For students, listening to music may lower performance when combined with study tasks like note-taking or understanding textbook content. Likewise, Sydney University’s Counselling and Psychological Services have advised that music whilst studying is a distraction in “One day at a time”, one of their skills-based workshops.

But for some, silence is not golden. Seven interviewees identified music as motivating them to study. In contrast to the non-listeners, music and the physical presence of earphones reduced distractions, preparing them for a study mindset. As one student said, “listening to Satie reduces my anger when studying law [which is a trek]. If I didn’t listen to him, I wouldn’t study law”. The musical range was not just limited to classical music. Other interviewees listened to lo-fi, Kpop and Western pop music, reflecting individual preferences. Music preferences plays a big part in elevating mood as discovered by Nantais and Schellenberg’s 1999 study on how music affects mood. Testing a sample size of 84, they found “exposure to happy music [music that listeners liked] also results in faster speed and greater persistence on various [perceptual, cognitive and motor] tasks”. In saying that, the study only used classical music however it remains feasible that these effects could apply to lyrical music. Those findings were reaffirmed in a 2005 study by the University of Windsor which found that “music could be a reliable cathartic outlet” and improved quality of work and productivity when IT workers were allowed to listen to music whilst working.

Lastly, three interviewees revealed that listening to music was a “gateway” to inspiration. As Jayden explained, “listening to instrumental music gives a rhythm to my work and helps me do my creative writing and structure my internal monologue”.

“Different songs make me feel different emotions and I can use those emotions to enhance what I’m trying to write,” Jayden said.

Another student, Jared, said that music helped him time his study blocks. “Often piano sonatas are usually 20-30 minutes in length so I can use my music to keep track of time”. The University of Windsor study hinted at this dimension where “knowledgeable music users knew with certainty which music enhanced their work”. A “significant” correlation was then found between curiosity and positive mood suggesting that listening to music helps align a student with optimum creativity.

Your WAM is the product of a combination of psychological factors like concentration, ability and motivation. As it stands, music can improve your creativity and motivation whilst also potentially hindering your concentration and memory. Given the right use, music can be a force for good. Our WAMs may well be grateful for our carefully crafted study playlists.