Does Music Help Students Learn?

Music comes in all shapes and sizes, and so do students. Ask students whether music helps them study, and you’ll get many different answers. Likewise, teachers’ policies vary on the subject. 

The reason for all the confusion is that everyone’s brain works differently, so music might help or hurt in different ways for different people. 

“If I don’t have music, then I’ll get distracted,” explained 8th grader Mia J., who always listens to music when doing homework. “The music keeps me on task, and it helps me get all the work done. It’s motivational.” 

The Healthline article “Music and Studying: It’s Complicated” explains that music acts as a reward. They cited a 2019 study saying, “Rewarding yourself with your favorite music can provide the motivation you need to learn new information,” and a 2014 study found that classical music can help with memory and processing. 

As for increasing focus, certain types of music can help your brain absorb and interpret new information. A 2007 study, according to Healthline, showed that classical music “can help your brain absorb and interpret new information more easily.”

“Basically, when I’m studying, or I am learning, and I have music, I can remember it for the test,” Mia explained.   

However, these results can be highly selective. The article also pointed out that “In a 2011 study of 41 boys diagnosed with ADHD, background music distracted some of the boys, but it appeared to lead to better performance in the classroom for others.”

It is important to note that as much as you might want it to help, music can have the opposite effect on some brains, or it can even depend on the subject you are studying. Eighth grader Cristina C. uses music for everything but English “because I would get the words mixed up,” she explained. 

Conversely, 8th grader Ryan F. uses music for English but not for science and math. “They usually take the most time, so I’m having to keep myself focused,” he described. 

Music can also negatively impact your working memory, which is important for learning.  Working memory is in use when you have to memorize or analyze something. According to Healthline, research shows that listening to music can reduce working memory.  Also, as Cristina pointed out, it can interfere with reading comprehension, particularly if the music has lyrics, is loud, or is upbeat.

Teachers have some leeway on the rules around music and headphone use in their classrooms. Some allow it during quiet individual work, and some won’t allow it at all.

“It depends on what the work is, and if I think the class could handle it,” said civics teacher CJ Aldrich. “[I might allow it] if I can trust that they are actually going to do the work and that it’s gonna be school-appropriate music,” said Mr. Alderich. 

The bottom line is that music works, for some students, with some music, in some classrooms, but there is no quick fix.  The thing to pay attention to is not how much you like the music but how productive you are with and without it.