The Best Music for Studying: 5 Genres Worth Trying
What is the best music for studying? Most students would probably love a definitive answer to that question. Maybe you're one of them. But can there really be just one right answer? And what about the whole premise? Is listening to music while studying actually effective? Does music help you study, or does it hinder you?
Here's the truth: It all depends on factors like your personality, your music preferences, how you learn, what you're studying, whether you're reading or writing, and how loud you play your music. That may not be the most satisfying answer, but it highlights the fact we're all different and complex creatures. When it comes to studying, music can be beneficial, detrimental, or completely neutral. What works for one student may not work for another.
Plus, many experts who have researched this subject recommend silence as the best auditory environment for concentration. Music has been shown, in many studies, to have a negative effect on people's abilities to absorb, process, and retain information. When in doubt, they suggest turning off the tunes altogether—especially if you are reading or studying a foreign language.
Still, we all know that life isn't always so simple. Silence can backfire. Many of us need a little extra motivation or outside stimulation in order to focus. Music can lift our moods and remove some of the boredom of studying subjects that we may not be particularly interested in. Without music, we may not be able to get through an entire study session. That's why using music for studying is often a better choice than trying to make a go of it in uncomfortable silence. At least you're studying.
That may be why, in a survey at one American college, more than 60 percent of students said that they find it beneficial to use music for concentration and studying.1 But how do you choose which kind of music to study to? Science offers a few clues about selecting the right music. Based on diverse research and the experiences of various college students, the best music genres to try may include:
- Classical music
- Ambient and electronic music
- World music
- Instrumental and atmospheric rock
- Instrumental jazz
Some students also try using audio products that promise brainwave entrainment through binaural beats. However, there is real debate about whether or not such products actually work. Using binaural beats for concentration sounds like a cool thing to do, but you may want to read more about it before spending any money on those types of products.
What Science Tells Us About the Best Music to Listen to While Studying
Does music help you focus? Researchers haven't yet found an absolute answer to that question. So they also haven't pinpointed, with any reliable certainty, the music that helps you study most effectively. In reality, brain science—especially as it relates to music—is still in its infancy. Scientists actually understand very little about how people's brains are affected by music.
In fact, the existing research is a mixed bag. Various studies contradict each other, and they often have major limitations. For instance, many widely touted studies on the subject have been conducted with very small sample sizes—Some with only eight to 20 participants. That makes it hard to generate reliable or practical conclusions about the effects of listening to music while studying when talking about the wider population. Plus, any given study only considers a few of the many possible variables at play.
So it's a good idea to take existing research findings with a grain of salt. However, they do offer some clues that are worth thinking about. For example, consider these findings:
- Your music preferences matter—The effects of background music on concentration are related more to a listener's fondness for that music than to the specific type of music. So, when it comes to concentration, music for work or study is most likely to have a distracting influence if the listener strongly likes or dislikes the music being played.2 In addition, the connections within people's brains that are responsible for internally focused thoughts and memory tend to be most active when they are listening to their favorite music, regardless of genre.3
- Volume is more important than music genre—A moderate level of ambient noise can enhance a person's performance on creative tasks. But creativity and information is harmed when the volume gets too high.4 People also tend to have significantly higher mental performance under silent conditions than when listening to music. And volume has more of an impact on performance than any particular kind of music.5
- The best music selection may depend on what you're doing—The best music for concentration may depend on your specific studying activities. For instance, you may perform better at reading while listening to music that you prefer. In contrast, you may do better at solving math problems while listening to music that you don't prefer.6
- Your personality type may play an important role—Introverts may do less well than extroverts on tests of memory and reading comprehension when being exposed to pop music.7
- Your age may have an impact—Contrary to the results of many older studies, the learning and memory of today's high school students may not be affected much, if at all, by background music. That may be due to the frequent and widespread use of modern personal music devices, which most young people have grown up with.8
So, can music help you focus? Maybe. It really just comes down to experimenting with different music genres and volumes in order to find out what works best for you during different study tasks. But here's a basic process to try:
- Before studying, spend at least five minutes listening to music that you find relaxing or motivational. That way, you can elevate your mood and prime your brain for the task ahead.
- While studying, listen to a playlist of music that doesn't have any recognizable lyrics or vocals. (Avoid radio for that reason.) Play something instrumental at a low or moderate volume. But stop the music temporarily when you face a challenge that requires extra focus.
- After completing your task, review what you've been studying. And play some of your favorite music that has a strong and enjoyable melody, with or without vocals.
Five of the best music genres to experiment with include:
1. Classical Music
Like many students, you might associate this type of music with old or snobbish people. But it would be a mistake not to at least try using classical music while studying. After all, it has a long and rich history, and it is known for helping people relax, improve their sleep patterns, and reduce their levels of stress. Plus, the variety of different composers and styles is incredibly large, including many modern composers with distinctive approaches that you may enjoy.
Playing classical music for studying is especially worth trying if you don't feel a strong like or dislike for it. That ambivalence may actually be what makes it effective for you since there is less chance that you'll be distracted by it. You may simply receive the benefit of its harmonious and peaceful qualities.
You are probably already familiar with at least some of the music by famous composers like Mozart and Beethoven. You may even be familiar with some of the work by composers of baroque music who preceded them, such as Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel. And most people today have heard the work of modern composers who use elements of classical music in their scores for major Hollywood movies.
So, what is the best classical music for studying? The popular answer might be Mozart since the so-called "Mozart effect" has been so widely publicized. The problem with this answer is that, since the original study that discovered it, many other studies have shown that there is no merit to the idea that Mozart is the only music that can enhance mental performance. It all depends on what you like.9
That's why, within this category or any other, the best study music may be anything that gives you a calm sense of energy without drawing too much attention to itself. It could be as simple as music featuring a lone piano or acoustic guitar. Or it could be as complex as a full orchestra with horns, woodwinds, stringed instruments, and drums. Different styles make different people respond in different ways.
When it comes to finding and experimenting with various forms of classical concentration music, YouTube is often a good place to start. For example, pay attention to how the following classical music compositions make you feel:
2. Ambient and Electronic Music
This broad category of music is popular on many college and university campuses. From slow ambient music with long drones to fast electronic dance music (EDM) with quick beats, many songs in this varied genre can be used as good music for studying. That's because, like classical music, it often provides a relaxing influence that can make your mind more receptive to new information.
Since you may be operating on a small budget in college, music of this type is frequently worth getting from websites with free online streams. For example, Soma.fm offers popular online radio streams like Drone Zone, Groove Salad, and Secret Agent. And Digitally Imported offers online radio channels in almost every electronic genre, including cool channels for relaxing study music like Space Dreams. And if you're a Spotify user, you have access to a huge variety of songs and playlists.
Of course, on YouTube, concentration music within the ambient and electronic genres is ever-present. Do the following songs make you feel relaxed and ready to study?
3. World Music
Finding music to listen to while studying is often easier when you become open to possibilities outside of music from North America and Western Europe. The styles from around the rest of the globe are extremely diverse and may offer exotic sounds and rhythms that you have never heard before. And a lot of it is suitable to use while concentrating. (Music for studying doesn't always have to consist of sounds that you already know well, especially if you need to write or channel your creativity or imagination somehow.)
Check out various kinds of ethnic, folk, and indigenous music from around the world. From India to Australia to the Caribbean, the diversity of styles is extraordinary. And, like other genres, you can find many examples from all over the globe on YouTube. Music for concentration is created in almost every culture. Plus, some world music is even effective when it includes vocals (as long as you don't understand the language being sung).
How do you think studying with music like the following examples would work for you?
4. Instrumental and Atmospheric Rock
Some college students find that the best music to study by is so-called post-rock music. It's a diverse genre that includes many bands that focus mostly on playing instrumental music without any vocals. However, some bands do include limited vocals with hard-to-discern lyrics. As a result, their songs often provide ideal background music for studying since they don't draw a lot of attention to themselves.
Explore the work of bands such as Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, Sigur Rós, and Godspeed You Black Emperor. Rather than traditional song structures, they often employ ethereal or atmospheric soundscapes. And many songs have a minimalistic narrative structure in which they slowly build to a satisfying crescendo.
As with other types of studying music, YouTube is a great place to discover post-rock songs and bands that you may want to add to your playlists. For instance, give the following songs a try next time you have to study.
5. Instrumental Jazz
Even if you think that you're not a fan of jazz, it's often worth giving some of the mellower styles of this genre a chance. You may be surprised at how inspired and relaxed it can make you feel. In fact, using instrumental jazz music to help you study may be ideal if you aren't normally a big fan of the style. As long as you don't totally dislike it, the genre can provide a neutral yet pleasant backdrop that doesn't distract you or make you want to stop and immerse yourself in the music instead of studying.
Much-loved jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans all produced many mellow songs that are perfect for using as background music during study sessions. For example, try listening to the following selections while concentrating on your studies.
What Is Brainwave Entrainment? (Do Binaural Beats Work?)
Brainwave entrainment, sometimes mistaken as "brainwave entertainment," is the process of causing a person's brain to enter a particular state in which his or her brainwaves match the frequency of an external stimulus. Often, binaural beats are used as that stimulus.
A binaural beat is basically just an auditory illusion that is created when two tones—each one with a different frequency—are played into the separate ears of a listener at the same time. In addition to the tone on the left and the tone on the right, the listener (who is wearing headphones) perceives a pulse in between them. That pulse has its own tone and frequency and is known as the binaural beat. A similar effect happens when two different frequencies are passed through a single speaker and a person listens without headphones. In that case, the pulses that are perceived are called monaural beats.
Many companies sell audio products with binaural beats that can supposedly change the frequency of your brainwaves in order to help you relax or focus. Some of them even overlay study music. Alpha waves or beta waves are often what their binaural beats are trying to induce in listeners' brains. That's because those waves tend to be present during states of relaxation or concentration. Most brainwaves fall into the following categories:
- Delta waves—These brainwaves are usually present during dreamless sleep. They are represented by frequencies from about 0.1 to 4 Hz (i.e., cycles per second).
- Theta waves—When a person is drowsy, sleepy, or in deep meditation, these waves are typically present. Their frequency range is generally between 4 and 8 Hz.
- Alpha waves—Study after study has shown that alpha brainwaves tend to be present during states of relaxation, mental reflection, and creativity. They range from about 8 to 12 Hz.
- Beta waves—These brainwaves tend to occur when a person is concentrating, intensely focusing on something, or feeling alert or unsettled. Their frequencies range from about 12 to 30 Hz or above.
- Gamma waves—At frequencies of about 40 Hz and higher, a person may experience moments of joyful insight or deep discovery and understanding.
So, are binaural beats safe? And do they actually work? Contrary to some ill-informed reporting by certain media outlets, binaural beats are most likely safe. They are not "digital drugs" that can make you high or cause any kind of "alpha waves overdose." In fact, there is very little credible, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to suggest that binaural beats affect the human brain in any significant way.
To be sure, there is a ton of online hype about binaural beats, study methods involving them, and the potential for alpha wave music to help students concentrate. But you won't find much verifiable scientific substance to back up the bold claims made by many companies who are cashing in on the trend of trying to induce beta or alpha waves for studying. That's why it may be best to save your money.
On the other hand, some students claim to have experienced positive changes while using binaural beats. Focus and a sense of calm are just two of the many purported effects. So maybe binaural beats work in a way that scientists still don't understand. Or maybe those students are experiencing results thanks to the power of suggestion, which is a real, scientifically valid phenomenon.
Either way, you don't have to spend money in order to give binaural beats a try. Plenty of websites offer free online streams or downloads.
What Music Helps You Study?
Have you discovered any answers yet? If not, keep trying different songs and music genres. Try music that you're unfamiliar with or that you think you won't like. The best music for studying may actually be something that you've been reluctant to try in the past. So be bold and experiment.
If all else fails, maybe you and some friends can create your own music. These days, almost anyone can make electronic compositions with nothing more than a laptop computer and a small MIDI keyboard. Even sophisticated mobile apps are available.
And if you want more advanced training, many vocational schools offer convenient programs in music recording and production. You can easily find a program near you by entering your zip code into the program finder below.
1 English House Gazette, "The iPod Goes to College," website last visited on September 21, 2016.
2 Fu Jen Catholic University, Effects of background music on concentration of workers, website last visited on September 21, 2016.
3 Scientific Reports, "Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem," website last visited on September 21, 2016.
4 Oxford University Press, Journal of Consumer Research, "Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition," website last visited on September 21, 2016.
5 Inquiries Journal, "The Impact of Listening to Music on Cognitive Performance," website last visited on February 22, 2017.
6 International Journal for Innovation Education and Research, "The Effects of Background Music Style on Mathematical Computation and Reading Comprehension," website last visited on September 21, 2016.
7 Applied Cognitive Psychology, "Music while You Work: The Differential Distraction of Background Music on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts," website last visited on September 21, 2016.
8 The Journal of Experimental Secondary Science, "Analyzing the Effect of Music on Memory in a 21st Century Learning Environment," website last visited on September 21, 2016.
9 Psychology of Music, "Exposure to music and cognitive performance: tests of children and adults," website last visited on September 21, 2016.