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The Scientific Soundtrack for Success

By: Haley Rupp

During late night cram sessions with my roommates, a common debate is what music we will listen to. While Tiffany enjoys silence and Caroline enjoys her lo-fi beats, I prefer listening to upbeat music with lyrics that I know.

After these countless debates, often decided by who had the remote, I wondered what type of music actually is the most effective to study to. Especially for college students, it is common to listen to music when doing classwork or studying. According to an informal poll of 21 Elon students, most students listen to music with lyrics when studying, followed by an equal number of students listening to music without lyrics and no music. With the variety of listening preferences, I wondered which students were studying “correctly” according to scientific research.

While there has been an expansive amount of research on music and its impact on cognition and learning, there is still not a definite answer of what music is most effective to study to. There are many different factors that go into what music a person listens to while studying and its impact, including what type of work they are doing, their general music taste, and their mood.

One aspect of music that plays a large part in memory is whether or not the music has lyrics. One study scientifically tested the effect of background music on people’s ability to complete a difficult and attention-requiring task. The 102 student participants were split into two groups, each exposed to a different stimulus: music with lyrics or music without lyrics. Both groups took an initial control test without any music to see their baseline scores. They then retook the test with the presence of music with or without lyrics, according to the group they were assigned to. From the difference in performance between the baseline test and second test, this study suggests that the lyrics of a song may be disruptive, especially for tasks that involve reading or writing.

The inner voice in your head that helps you remember a phone number or coffee order by mentally repeating it is your phonological loop, which is crucial for thinking and processing. However, the phonological loop is easily distracted. Music with lyrics occupy some of its attention, preventing you from focusing on remembering information. This study found that background music with lyrics had a greater impact on attention and performance than music without lyrics, largely due to music with lyrics being a more distracting stimulus.

Another way that music effects studying and memorization is by impacting people’s moods. This is shown in Landay’s study which found that positive moods are linked to an increase in job performance and cooperative behaviors. Certain types of music can amplify or even change a person’s mood or feelings. For example, when playing music for a friend’s birthday party, you would play an upbeat Beyoncé song rather than Coldplay, because of the positive mood you want the guests to be in. So, could the effect that music has on a person’s mood be used to improve studying and performance?

The question was addressed in a 2012 study published in Learning and Individual Differences that measured students’ moods before a lecture on sports psychology. After this test, they then split the students into two classes: one where the lecture was given with mood-lifting classical music playing in the background and one without. The student’s moods were then tested afterwards, and the presence of music had a positive impact on their happiness during the lecture.

Not only did it influence their moods, but also their performance. The students in the class with background music did better on a follow-up quiz compared to the students who attended the same lecture without music. While the effects of music on mood and memory retention are relatively small, they do provide some insight on what music can be more beneficial for certain activities.

Dr. Srigley, a psychology professor at Elon who taught a class on the psychology of music, said that the association between memories and music is so strong that it can trigger certain memories and moods.

Even though the research suggests listening to music without lyrics is usually the most effective for studying, it also advises students to listen to music that regulates their mood and makes them feel content and relaxed.

Whether finding music on Apple Music, Spotify, or other streaming platforms, there is a wide range of music to listen to. When studying in the past, I would struggle finding an artist or playlist to listen to in order to focus more because of how many playlists there were and the differences between them. If you did want to follow the recommendations of these studies, I tried to make it easier on myself and others and made a playlist with songs that would be the most effective to listen to while studying, according to research.

Screenshot of studying effective playlist

While lyrics can distract the phonological loop, making it more difficult to remember certain things, the impact is not very significant and depends on the task you are completing, among other factors. It is most effective to choose music that increases your mood and helps you relax while also staying focused. Now when doing homework with my roommates and debating whether to listen to Hozier or Kanye, I will know which will be more effective based on the assignment I am working on and my state of mind.


Shih, Y. N., Huang, R. H., & Chiang, H. Y. (2012). Background music: Effects on attention performance. Work, 42(4), 573-578.

Landay, K., & Harms, P. D. (2019). Whistle while you work? A review of the effects of music in the workplace. Human Resource Management Review, 29(3), 371-385.

Dosseville, F., Laborde, S., & Scelles, N. (2012). Music during lectures: Will students learn better?. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(2), 258-262.

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