Can Music Help You Learn?

When I started my college career, one of the biggest adjustments, aside from being in a brand-new place with all brand-new people, that I had to do was learn how to study. Studying was never something that I did in high school. My grades were good enough that I did not have to study, nor was I really able to focus enough to study, not that I even ever wanted to. But when I went to college, I soon learned that I would not be receiving the grades I wanted to if I did not study. The classes themselves, such as Physics, Introduction to Zoology, Psychology, and even Philosophy, were a lot more difficult due to the amount of large amount of information that we had to learn in such a short amount of time. Therefore, it was imperative that I learned how to study, so I quickly set out to find the best way to study for me.
When I finally realized I had to buckle down and study, I had a multitude of attempts at learning how to study until I found the way that worked for me. I first tried studying with a group of friends. This situation really works for a lot of people because it takes some of the stress away from studying. Environments like these can easy anxiety or other fears about studying because you can have some fun with friends as you study. It almost makes the disheartening situation of having to study constantly easier because you have other people around you who are struggling as well. But there are two ways this scenario could go. It could really work for someone, or it could be a complete disasterresulting in having to put a longer amount of time towards studying due to the possibility of distractions arising throughout the study session. For me, this was really not a good situation, as I was in the scenario where there were too many distractions. I would very easily get distracted and begin talking and not focusing on my work. Before I knew it, a few hours would have gone by and I would have gotten no work done. When I was able to study, it took me a longer time than I wanted it to because I wasn’t always fully focused on my work. Basically, what would be a two-hour study session turned into a three or even four-hour session. I clearly had to look for another solution.
Instead of studying with a group of people, I then moved to study by myself. I’ve been told time and time again that in order to focus, you need to remove all distractions. So, when I tried this method, I just sat down and opened up my books right away. But contrary to what other people may say, for me, the silence was incredibly loud. I was still really unable to focus. I found my mind wandering off in the middle of my reading to the point where I would read a page but retain none of the information. That would cause me to have to go back and read the same page over multiple times. Eventually, to be able to keep my mind from wandering, I would get on phone or switch tabs on my laptop and become fully distracted once again. This was even worse for me than studying with friends because once I got my mind off of studying, it was very hard for me to convince myself that I needed to start again. There were times when I would end up wasting hours trying to study, then end up being very unprepared for the next day of class or my next exam. That is obviously not what I want so I clearly still needed to be searching for something that worked for me.
The easy solution that I came up with to keep my mind activated and prevent it from wandering was played some music. So, I opened my Spotify app and began to play some of my favorite songs. But what I quickly discovered was that while listening to my favorite songs, I ended up focusing more on the songs than the work that I needed to get done. Instead of focusing on my reading about Cnidarians or Vertebrates, I would be singing along to the tune of “DNA” by Kendrick Lamar, which is not at all what I should be doing while I’m trying to study. Since I was unable to get any work done, this method was also not helping at all.
So instead of listening to some of my favorite songs, I tried listening to random playlists of songs that I didn’t know. My thinking was that if I didn’t know the words to the songs, I wouldn’t focus on the songs as much and wouldn’t end up singing along to the music instead of studying. But that still didn’t do the trick as I would still be listening to the words all the time and losing focus. It was possibly even more distracting because I was trying to listen to the new songs that I had never heard, rather than just singing along mindlessly to words that I already knew. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that the problem with the music that I had tried listening to, was the fact that there were words that took my attention away from the words that I was reading. The most logical option was to then take away the words.
While the first two attempts at using music didn’t work, I still felt as though having music in the background was definitely the best option to help me study as it could hopefully keep my mind activated. So, I went on a search to find the perfect music to listen to while I study. The easy start for me was beginning on Spotify. Spotify has lots of playlists available for every type of music there is. I quickly found groups of playlists under the Study theme. Of the ones that were available, I decided to try the instrumental study playlist, since songs that had words were difficult for me to continue to study. When I began listening to this every time I studied, I soon realized that this was the absolute best music to listen to while I study.
Instrumental music allowed me to focus on my work while I am studying or reading. Originally, I felt as though the instrumental music was only background noise that kept my mind from wandering allowing me to fully focus on what I was reading. And while that is definitely the case. I quickly realized that I actually started to find myself mindlessly humming to the music as I listened to it over and over again. So, I was not only keeping my mind in check to be able to retain what I am reading, but I was also learning the music at the same time.
Music Help You Learn
The brain is a super complex organ, so the explanation as to why instrumental music works as the best music to study with is not a simple one. However, the basis of the explanation is surely what parts of the brain are responsible for the different parts of sensory inputs that come into the brain. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different inputs or outputs to the body. Those activities can be seen in each part of the brain using an MRI machine. According to, the temporal lobe of the brain is responsible for processing sound sensory input and determining those sounds. Additionally, the frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for reading fluency and comprehension. There are also parts of the brain that link the two together allowing the individual sounds that are heard and words that are read to be processed and understood (para. 6). When there are two different sensory inputs, the song via hearing and the reading via sight, for one single lobe, as there would be for the frontal lobe when there is music with words playing while you are reading, the brain is essentially at a point of overload. Those two different sensory inputs going into the one processing lobe makes you less able to retain the information that you want due to the way the brain works.
Current psychological ideas on memory state that your brain takes in all the information around you and holds it for around two seconds. From there, the important things are processed into your short-term memory that lasts from about ten seconds to a minute. That information is then further processed down to your long-term memory storage where it can be retrieved at any time. When you reduce the amount of sensory information going into your brain, you increase the possibility of what you are reading to be placed into the long-term memory storage because there is less information for the brain to sort through. This approach also explains why listening to music with words sometimes does more harm than help while studying. When you add words that must be determined, you really end up just doubling the amount of sensory input you receive at every second. When your brain only has 2 seconds to pick out the important things it is imperative to reduce the amount of sensory information that you are taking in. If there is too much information, some of the important things you actually want to retain will be missed. Once any of that information is gone, it is gone. That results in more time being spent rereading material and trying to pick up everything that was missed the first time around, and even less time being able to do the thing that all college students wish they could do more, which is sleep.
Retaining the information is clearly the most important aspect of studying. This is where including instrumental music in studying makes the most impact on your studying. When you use music that is only instrumental, you do not overload your senses with information, because you lower the amount of input going into your brain. That may raise the question as to why having no music does not work better for retaining information than having some type of music. For someone that has a strong ability to concentrate on one thing at a time, no music my work much better than any other way of studying. But in my situation, my mind wanders constantly. Not only while I study but at really all points throughout the day: in class, at work, before bed, and even when I’m driving. The background music activates the subconscious of my mind and keeps it from wandering all the time, allowing me to study.
I was extremely lucky and am very thankful that I found a way to study that worked for me very early on in my college years. Some people spend a whole semester or even a whole year or two without knowing how to properly study, and it really hurts them and their GPA during their freshman year and possibly into later years as well. But for me, since I learned how to study right away during my first semester when I previously did not know how to, I was able to obtain a 4.0 GPA my first semester, and a 3.59 my second semester while taking a few very challenging courses. Had I not found out that I study best while listening to instrumental music, it is very possible that I may not have gotten as high of grades during my freshmen year of college. There is no doubt in my mind, that all throughout undergrad and any schooling I do further than that, I will be studying while listening to instrumental music. This will be a huge help to me as I go along in my college career and I think it is something that is really going to help me to reach my academic goals.