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The Effects of Listening to Music While Studying Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2021


Music is a human construct, because humans have to acknowledge and define the existence of an objective reality of sound into music. Every human culture uses music to promote its ideas and ideals and music is intrinsically interwoven in the fabric of each society. Music is considered as a powerful tool for shaping individual abilities and character, and “musicality is a universal trait of humankind.” (Hallam, Susan, 2006). “If sounds are created or combined by a human being, recognized as music by some group of people and serve some functions which music has come to serve for mankind, then those sounds are music.”(Radocy and Boyle, 1988, p.19).

With the advent of modern electronic gadgets students are exposed to more and more avenues of entertainment and study time is not devoid from the interference of these gadgets. How music, particularly background music, affect student learning is an area attracting much research, and it is finding difficult to produce conclusive evidence to support this habit.

Main Text

The Oxford Dictionary defines music as “the art of combining sounds of voice(s) or instrument(s) to achieve beauty of forms and expression of emotion.” The effect of music on individual to individual will be at variance as it depends on subjective judgments of what constitutes beauty of form and expression of emotion of an individual. Miller (2000) argues that:

“music exemplifies many of the classic criteria for a complex human evolutionary adaptation. He points out that no culture has ever been without music (universality); musical development in children is orderly; musicality is widespread (all adults can appreciate music and remember tunes); there is specialist memory for music; specialized cortical mechanisms are involved; there are parallels in the signals of other species—for example, birds, gibbons and whales—so evolution may be convergent; and music can evoke strong emotions, which implies receptive as well as productive adaptations” (Hallam, 2006, p.2).

Many historical evidences show that music existed many thousands of years ago and several musical instruments were developed in different parts of the world. According to theorization of Huron (2003), music developed among different cultures as a part of courtship behavior, social cohesion, group effort, perceptual development, motor skill development, conflict reduction, safe time passing, and a mnemonic device of trans-generational communication.

Music has multiple functions which influence development of individuals, social groups and the society as a whole. Music as a medium of expressing human feelings transcend into enforcing social norms and continuity and stability of culture, at the same time contributes to the integration of society. In the perspective of an individual music is a medium for emotional expression particularly when words and verbal exchanges are difficult to establish. It has the power to influence individual mood as well as induce relaxation or stimulate mental or physical performance.

Scientific evidence show that the human brain has systems for music perception which operate from birth, enabling ‘significant nonverbal communication in the form of music’ (Gaston 1968, p.15 as quoted by Hallam p, 4). It is also suggested that participating in music generates social bonding and cultural coherence as well as formation and maintenance of group identity, collective thinking, coalition forming, and promotion of co-operative behavior.

Though there are arguments that music exists simply because of the pleasure that it affords, its basis is purely hedonic, there is no doubt that engagement with it is rewarding for human beings. Even though music has varied roles to play in individual and social development the extent to which music education is provided through state education systems internationally varies.

The approach to formal music education focuses on listening, understanding and appreciation of music, performance, and creativity or it is integrated with general arts education. However, a comprehensive music education approach has not been evolved so far. At present academicians and education professionals express deep concern about the nature, role, importance, and future of arts education in the schools in order to provide quality education to younger generations and make them successful in their future education and career development.

Much of the research results indicate that education in arts provides significant cognitive benefits and boosts academic achievement, beginning at an early age and continuing through school. Music helps to develop cognitive and higher order thinking skills necessary for academic success, as music improves individual talent in the rhythm sense, physical coordination, motor skills, critical thinking, memory recall, listening, and logic development. Research studies have shown that students who listen to music have higher spatial scores, the ability to form mental images of physical objects, on intelligence tests. (Rauseher, et al., 1994)

Among students of arts with music it is found that they learn how to work cooperatively, pose and solve problems, and forge the vital link between individual or group effort and quality of results, which are important for success in a competitive workplace. Well organized arts education contributes to building technological competencies as well as higher level thinking skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating both personal experience and objective data. In addition, arts education enhances student’s respect for the cultures, belief systems, and values of their fellow learners.

Along with the advancement in scientific techniques, for studying functioning of brain, there is proportionate increase in research exploring the representation of music-related functions of the brain. Altenmuller (2003) states that “the neural systems underlying music appear to be distributed through the left and right cerebral and cerebellar hemispheres, with different aspects of music processed by distinct neural circuits.”(Hallam p.11).

Further researchers opine that the majority of relevant sound information is neurally encoded, even if we are not consciously aware of it, and the attention process of the listener has important implications for the variations of their reaction to music. It is also found that music activates large parts of auditory cortex in both hemispheres of our brain. There is a wide range of music-related behaviors, such as amusia (loss of musical function), aphasia (loss of language functions), etc., which are influenced by brain functions that can be spared or impaired depending on the extent of damage to brain.

Learning occurs by the self-organization of cerebral cortex in response to external stimuli, and learning and memory are based on changes in “synaptic efficacy in the brain.” (Hallam, p.17) The brain network undergoes changes for adapting cortical remodeling, with effective connections between neurons. The brain is able to adapt quickly to environmental demands in the short and long term, and over time develops appropriate neurological structures to meet individual needs. It is evidenced that “the brain responds to behavioral needs but, once developed, enhanced brain functions operate in processing under passive listening conditions, suggesting that they are deeply engrained processing strategies shaped by years of musical experience” (ibid p.19).

LeDoux (1996) suggests that music is capable to activate phylo-genetically old parts of the nervous system that are strongly implicated in the induction of learning of fear responses which operate subconsciously (ibid p.21). When we hear music or other sounds, our emotional responses to them are controlled by amygdale, which provide a more complete cognitive assessment of the situation. In the same pattern when the students are taught about rhythm through verbal, logical explanations accompanied by musical examples, then their approach will be controlled by nature of learning. With adequate time spent in learning, the brain will develop appropriate neurological networks to retain the knowledge and skills learnt.

Research suggests that listening to music while studying may “distract attention from the studied material, thereby impeding learning.” (Tan, L. 1999). Music is every where in the life of an individual, starting from the fetus stage till the end of the life. People listen to different types of music depending on their mood, and the effects of listening to music are personal to each person, which produces different emotion to different people. Any music played while the attention of the listener is focused primarily on a task or activity other than listening to music, is defined as “background music,” and an individual engaged in studying or academic preparation may not be aware of the music in their immediate environment (Radocy & Boyle, 1988).

It may be possible that music enhances some individual’s learning, but it may be distracting to others. Researchers like Radocy & Boyle (1988) have explored the possible transfer of cognitive abilities to other curricular areas by hypothesizing that exposure to music, through participation and formal instruction can facilitate nonmusical learning. With popularization of “Mozart effect” in 1993 by Rauscher et al, claim that listening to Mozart improves intelligence, there is much argument about the potential role of music in developing intelligence, particularly in students.(Listening to music)

Research has found that positive, happy music helps the learner to remember positive facts, whereas negative, sad music helps the learner to remember negative facts, and may even hinder the recall of positive facts. As the brain has to associate the music with an emotion, and when what is being studied is comparable to the music being heard, then the music will help recall the learning. It is common among students to engage in multi-tasking, meaning watching TV, listening to music, surfing the web and chatting online while doing home work.

With multi-tasking students get a superficial understanding of the studied material. As many activities interfere with the studies leading to poor performance, it can have negative impact on learning of students. It is difficult to identify whether passive distraction affect student learning as student’s study preferences vary from individual to individual. For some students’ music functions like a shield from distractions, and for others music can produce emotional soothing.

And for those with attention-deficit disorder, who are constantly seeking stimulation, some distraction may be helpful to concentrate on their studies. If the students are able to identify their potential and they find listening to music makes them more enjoyable to do homework and studying it will be probably a good approach as long as it does not affect their learning.

The constantly changing media and influx of more and more entertainment industry activities are more likely to divide the mind and interrupt studying than what was happening with background music. However, educators need to acknowledge the power that music has to influence moods, emotions, and arousal levels as music stimulates rewards systems in the brain and engagement with it is naturally enjoyable. Through informal engagements with music in a range of social occasions, where children will have extensive exposure to a wide range of musical genres, it will be easy to amalgamate music in the life of students without interfering with their studies.

Works Cited

Rauscher, F., Shaw, G., Levine, L., Ky, K., and Wright, E. Music and Spatial task performance: a casual relationship. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association 102nd Annual Convention, Los Angeles, CA.

Radocy, R.E., and Boyle, J.D. Psychological Foundations of Musical Behavior (2nd ed). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas. 1988.

Hallam, Susan. Music Psychology in Education. London: Institute of Education, University of London. 2006. Web.

Tan, L. Effects of distracting noise on study efficacy. Journal of Psychology. 23, (233-226). 1999.

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