Plenty of students can be found with a textbook open and headphones in, trying to ease the pain of study with some comforting tracks. But depending on what you’re listening to, bombarding your brain with music and study at once could do more harm than good.

We spoke with Nikki Rickard, music psychologist and Swinburne Online Director of Psychology, about the effects music can have on memory, and whether it’ll help – or hinder – your exam prep.

Before And After

The general rule of using music as a study tool is to play it before and after your study session – not during. Playing your favourite tracks before you study can put you in a good mood and get you focused and alert, which will improve your learning.

Playing uplifting or energetic music after you study can lead to a bit of an adrenaline rush, and this physiological ‘arousal response’ can actually consolidate what you’ve learned into long-term memory better.  Listening to music during study, however, could be distracting.

Competing For Your Brain’s Bandwidth

Our short-term memory can only hold so much at any one time.  If you listen to music, you are using up some of your brain’s ‘bandwidth’ (known as ‘cognitive resources’).  If the music is not too demanding, you might only be using up a little, leaving plenty for studying.

However, if the music grabs your attention, or the material you’re studying is complex or difficult, then it could end up competing too much for the cognitive resources you have.

Introverts Vs. Extroverts

Your personality type can actually affect your response to listening to music when studying. Introverts are more likely to find the music far too distracting, whereas extroverts could find it the extra motivation they need to stick to a task.

It also depends on why you’re using it; if you’re using music to keep you engaged, then it could be helpful, but if you’re really using it as an avoidance strategy (to avoid thinking about study), then it’s not going to be helpful!


A bit of instrumental jazz could do the trick? 

Genres

If you do play music to help you study, then try to choose music without words and stick to instrumentals – and make sure it’s not too loud or changes volume repeatedly.

Music that’s likely to use up more bandwidth is often going to be music you love so much you find it hard to ignore; music that has a lot of variety in it (changing tempo or loudness); or music with lyrics. Therefore, instrumental music with a regular beat and that’s just a bit uplifting might be better than some of your favourites.

Genres such as soundtracks, jazz, acoustic, classical, and electronic music tend to be better than others for concentration – although evidence tends to suggest silence is better than any type of music.

Exam Time

It’s true that it can be easier to recall information by recreating the context in which it was learned, so if you study while listening to music, then playing the same music again before an exam might help trigger the memories you need.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the silence in an exam will disadvantage you – the benefits of context-dependent memory will be balanced by having more bandwidth to do the work.


…or maybe the sound of silence is better after all.