Music and Focus, Part 2

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Dr. VanHandel,

My name is Michelle, and I am currently a high school senior enrolled in a college English class. I am working on a research paper focusing on the effects of music on productive studying/working.

Your website is really helpful, thank you so much! I really appreciate how you bundle up all of your questions into one website, and I’m sure others appreciate it as well.

I do have one more question that I could not find on your website. Does listening to music while studying worsen retention of information?


Hi Michelle,

There’s actually conflicting studies about that! Some studies claim that if you listen to music while you’re studying, and you listen to the same music while you’re taking a test, that you’ll recall the information better; other studies haven’t found that effect. Others claim that listening to music, especially music with lyrics, will make retention of information worse. So there isn’t a consensus about this. What we do know is that it likely depends on the type of music you’re listening to and whether it’s music you like or not. 

A while back there were a number of studies that claimed that listening to Mozart made you smarter; people went way overboard with that study and started selling CDs that parents could play to babies to make them smarter. This was known as the “Mozart effect,” and was debunked as researchers showed that other music could also have this effect, and that it was very short-lived. It’s not about music making you smarter, it’s about music having a short term arousal effect, and that can heighten certain types of mental processing. But in order for music to have that arousal effect, it has to be music you like, or a musical genre you like.

If listening to music does worsen retention of information, it’s likely because of the effects I mentioned in the other questions on the website — it may be competing with other cognitive processes and drawing resources away from the processes that are trying to learn and retain information. 

Hope that helps!