By Grant Merriam
Updated: May 16, 2019
Popular classical music study playlists have popped up all over YouTube. Programs like “Baby Mozart” and “Beethoven for Babies” are all the rage. The word on the street is that classical music can help you study by improving memory and focus. Some even say classical music can rewire your brain, boosting IQ. But how much of that is actually true?
Can background classical music really help you study?
The short answer is “yes.” A recent university study in France showed that students who listened to a lecture with background classical music scored substantially higher on a quiz than students who took the same quiz after listening to the same lecture, minus the classical music. The French researchers suggested that the music may have helped students stay more focused by engaging their emotions, resulting in enhanced academic performance.
That’s right in line with what researchers from Stanford found when they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity while listening to music. They showed that music activates the area of the brain that deals with paying attention, which increases your capacity to retain information and make predictions.
Dr. Masha Godkin, a professor at Northcentral University, recently explained the effect music can have on the brain this way: “Music has the potential to take a person from the Beta brainwave state to deeper Alpha, and then Theta brainwave states. . . Music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, and the activation of both hemispheres can maximize learning and improve memory.”
Another reason background music may help you study is that it can decrease stress and anxiety levels. An in-depth report out of the University of Maryland Medical Center demonstrated that music is effective for reducing stress in both healthy people and those with health problems. For example, for patients with heart problems, listening to calming music can decrease heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety.
But there are some common sense caveats. It is possible for background music to harm the learning process. Researchers have found this can happen when the background music or the task is too intense.
A study out of the University of Toronto recently found that loud and fast background music can hinder reading comprehension. Similarly, Dr. Godkin suggests that lyrics and aggressive tempo can detract from learning. That’s why she says background classical music is often ideal: No distracting lyrics and a moderate tempo of 60-70 beats per minute (which, coincidentally, is right in the range of average resting heart rates).
Researchers also say there’s a relationship between the effects of background music and the complexity of what you’re doing. Do something too demanding or too complex and background music normally has negative effects. They also found the converse to be true: Background music is more likely to have positive effects below a certain threshold of complexity.
Logic suggests that the precise threshold differs from person to person. We each have different processing powers and levels of sensory tolerance. So, you’ll want to do some personal experiments to see exactly when and how classical music helps elevate your own studying.