I wrote two posts for Medium recently, each with a slightly different message about whether music helps you study. In the first, I argued that listening to music has mostly positive effects on studying and memorization tasks. In the second post, I focused on the downside of listening to music. I deliberately split these topics, because I wanted to show how there often isn’t a simple single answer to whether something is good or bad for you.
As I’ve mentioned previously, science news is often based on the coverage of a single new scientific article. Once an article gets media attention, it can seem like that’s the final word on it. In reality, research doesn’t stand still. Scientists keep studying new aspects and approach things from new angles. They also repeat older studies to make sure they hold up. Sometimes they do (but those confirmation studies never make the news). Sometimes they don’t.
Contradictions in science
Most of the research in any given field never gets featured in the media, and some topics are more popular than others. Anything related to a possible health effect usually makes for a popular news article, but because there are many studies all looking at different angles, you end up with what looks like a contradiction: drinking wine is good for you AND drinking wine is bad for you? Standing desks are good AND bad? No wonder some people don’t trust scientists anymore – it looks like they’re contradicting themselves all the time!
But that constant contradiction is a necessary part of science. Many different scientists all approach the same question from a slightly different angle, and do different experiments to test their ideas. Sometimes the answers don’t match, and they discuss them together to eventually come up with a new hypothesis to test. Science never ends. There is always more to explore.
The best way to get a good idea of what the current consensus is in a field of scientific research is to look at recent review articles or meta analyses. These are summaries of the published research articles in a certain field, written by experts in that area. The review articles don’t include their own experiments (although meta analyses do calculations across multiple studies) but just summarize what the current consensus is. These reviews rarely get covered in the news, because they are not considered “news” – they’re summaries of already published research.
So, does music help you study?
So what’s the word on whether music helps you study or not? In short, it’s complicated. See my posts on Medium for more details, but to summarise it briefly: If you choose the music yourself, and it’s not distracting you from your task, it may help you concentrate in certain tasks. If you’re doing a memorisation task, music with lyrics can be distracting, but if these lyrics are related to what you’re studying, they can help in comprehension of the subject matter. On balance, music doesn’t do much harm unless it is a distraction, so if you enjoy listening to certain music while you study, you’re probably okay.