Project Conclusions


English: PET scan of a normal human brain

This project was designed to find out the effects of listening to music while we study. This was done through traditional research, a student survey, and interviews with biology students and professors. While my original intentions involved performing a full scale memory test on a number of students to quantify the effects music has on memory retention, I decided not only that this was unrealistic with time and resource constraints, but that with all of the possible factors that go into this topic that it would, in the end, answer little.

Each area of research determined important factors in regards to the conclusions gained from this effort. The survey determined the impact research would have on how many students, and the interviews opened my mind to new factors I had not considered originally. Research found many different factors that go into how music impacts our brains while we study, such as the different roles each part of the brain play, the chemicals in our brain that are released when music is listened to, the properties of music itself, differences in types of studying and learning, and personal preference.

Overall, while it seems the brain is for more powerful than most of us realize, it is also very susceptible to outside stimuli. While it is unfortunately impossible to come up with definitive answers as to how exactly certain music will affect specific types of work, it is very much the case that music does have a profound influence on many different aspects of our brain.

To Conclude:

Musica comprimida  -  Compressed Music

When I started this project I wanted to find a single, conclusive answer to the question of whether music does or does not affect studying, and if so, why? I can say with almost certainty that music does indeed impact a student’s ability to learn. Unfortunately or not, this question as to “how?” is far more complicated than one test could ever answer. There are so many complicating factors that we have discussed, such as area of the brain a certain type of work is most impacting, the neurotransmitters is being mostly released, which emotion is occurring from a song, even the genre and volume of a student’s iPod. Many of the factors we had discussed that could help a student be more productive, such as playing a song that has pronounced beats, is relaxing, and you personally enjoy a lot, can even be very much distracting if used incorrectly. A person’s best guess as to how a song will influence their work efficiency is essentially “it depends.”

Thank you everyone who has kept up with my progress through this research effort, and I hope to be able to continue posting new information as I find it out in the future. In the meantime, feel free to use any of the information gathered here, and check out the ‘Sources’ tab for other websites and articles about similar topics.

Daniel Vieth

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Final Research Summary


brains! (Photo credit: cloois)

The human brain is in many ways like the super computer that keeps us alive. It runs all of our organs, lets us control our bodies, and of course gives us the ability to think. With new research conducted all the time, it seems our brains are far more powerful than we had ever previously imagined. It is not a static organ, but rather it is dynamic, always changing and always adapting. This is why it is so interesting to see how much music plays a part in affecting how our brain functions. This project was designed to explore the full extent of music’s impact on a person’s ability to study, both in positive and negative ways. This was done with traditional research methods, an electronic survey conducted on fellow students, through interviews with an enthusiastic student, and with interviews from knowledgeable James Madison biology professors. What was found from this research was an array of different ways music does affect both the brain and studying. These findings go into the different areas of the brain affected by music and studying, the properties of music most relevant to the brain’s functioning, the neurotransmitter’s effect on mood, the different neural properties that influence memory encoding, the differences in types of studying and learning, and people’s personal preferences when it comes to musical choice.


Chart Question 1

Photo Credit: Vieth

The initial survey was conducted through the web-engine ‘Survey Monkey,’ and distributed both through the classroom email and social media site ‘Facebook.’ The survey was important in finding the full extent of how often students actually use music while they study, the different ways music can be distracting from their homework, and the reasons why they listen to music while doing their homework. Of the students surveyed, over 50% of students answered that they listen to music the majority of the time while they work, while only 14% stated that they never listen to music while they study. This indicates that research into this topic is relevant not only to me personally but also to other students. These students also indicated many possible ways that music might hinder their ability to work efficiently and productively. These include high volumes, distracting lyrics, faster or louder musical genres, and simply giving more attention to the song than they are giving to their work. The top reasons listed for students to engage in listening to music while they study are to block out external noise, to help them focus more on their work, to help students relax, to give students an extra energy boost, and to prevent the unsettling silence of some work areas. While some of these reasons, such as blocking noise and preventing silence, are more-so personal choices, the other three can actually be explained by taking a deeper look into the amazing powerhouse of our brains.

Parts of the Brain

Goalfinder  brain-strucuture

The first step in understanding how both music and studying can affect our brains is by focusing a little bit more on the areas of the brain directly impacted by the two separately. The sections of your brain most associated with studying are the pre-frontal cortex, which deals with attention and cognition, and the hippocampus, which deals with memory. As for the parts of the brain associated with music, we must first look at the physical analysis of the sound-waves. After any noise passes through the incredibly complex and sensitive parts of the inner and outer ear, they will be converted from the pressure waves we call sound into electrical pulses that are then sent to be interpreted by the temporal lobes. This auditory section of the brain is what tells us what we are listening too. Music, however, goes farther than just being noise that is interpreted. As almost anyone can attest, a person really feels music. Like the surveyors stated, it affects your mood, gets your pumped, and makes you relaxed. It may even affect your body physically by giving you goose-bumps.

en:Steps involved in hearing speech: Sound sig...

When we look at the connection between music and studying, it makes sense that the utilization of one with the help the other would have a positive benefit. According to one of the professors, who has asked to remain anonymous due to university protocols, one of the many reasons music affects studying is that it causes the different sections of the brain to work in conjunction with each other. When we utilize more than one part of the brain at the same time, the brain works at a higher functional capacity. This is why many classes, science in particular, have both lectures and labs. When we sit and watch a professor teach a lesson, we are not only listening with our ears (temporal lobe), but we are also writing down what we see with the help of our pre-frontal cortex, converting this knowledge from our short-term memory into our long-term memory with our hippocampus, and often times looking at pictures which utilizes our visual occipital lobe. When students participate in the learning process during a lab they are learning with their hands, which involves the cerebellum. In discussion classes, such as those associated with English or history, we are using the creative parts of our brain that are focused in the right hemisphere. In mathematical courses we are using the organization and analysis portions of our brain located mostly in the left hemisphere. Essentially, when we listen to music while we do our work, it forces more areas of the brain to activate at once, raising attention. This is why music can help people better focus and memorize what they need to for school.

Properties of the Music

Lego Headphones

Lego Headphones (Photo credit: eldeeem)

The music itself also has properties that assist in these areas of the brain activating, which in turn also raises focus and attention. According to our second professor, there is research that indicates that the rhythm and other oscillatory properties of music affect our brain’s ability to better organize and analyze. One example comes from that states that strong beats in particular force the brain to synchronize, leading to less chaotic thoughts. This is particularly helpful with mathematics, which relies almost entirely on organization and categorization. also indicates that it may be the silence between notes that trigger the brains to fire neurons faster, which in turn increases cognitive strength and memory capabilities. Both of these findings touch on what researchers call ‘The Mozart Effect.’ According to JS Jenkins of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, this effect was the proposed claim that music, such as Mozart’s piano sonatas, could improve intelligence. Though this hypothesis did not end up fully being the case, the studies conducted did find that long-term exposure to this music improved spatial-temporal reasoning by up to 30%.


Neuron synapse during neurotransmitter re-upta...

Neuron synapse during neurotransmitter re-uptake. Note that the process is slightly inefficient, as some neurotransmitters are lost in the medium between the neurons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Music, as many of us know, also has a profound influence on our mood, which is important in maintaining a person’s willingness to sit down and be productive. The biology student I interviews told me that much of this emotion impact derives from music’s affect on the brain’s neurotransmitters. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines neurotransmitters as substances that are released from the ends of a neuron, called the axon terminals, and travel through the synaptic gap between neurons. They act as messengers that send electrical pulses through the brain and the rest of the body. According the both, the three main neurotransmitters that are directly impacted by the music we listen to are serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Though serotonin is a little more complicated than this definition, it is easier to think of it as the mood neurotransmitter. When serotonin levels increase, you have an increase in positive feelings. Serotonin also leads to an increase in memory retention, and increase in a person’s ability to sleep, and a reduction in anxiety. Endorphins are what many refer to as the “pleasure” neurotransmitter. It is what makes people enjoy listening to music so much. It also promotes increased mental healing. Amisha Padnani of the New York Times describes dopamine acts as the “rewards” neurotransmitter, giving people that feeling of accomplishment when an assignment is accomplished.

Memory and LTP

Kurzon 16:18, 12 March 2007 (UTC)

Kurzon 16:18, 12 March 2007 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my interview with the second biology professor, the two of us discussed the possible link between music and memory, particularly in relation to a property of the brain’s neurotransmitters known as Long-Term Potentiation (LTP). According to Crooke and Bliss, LTP is the “long-lasting enhancement in signal transmission between two neurons.” This results from synchronized stimulation, or repeated and continuous use. What this means is that the neuron is being activated for a long period of time, like a muscle in an arm holding a weight. This causes an increase in synaptic and cognitive strength, which directly impacts the brain’s ability to encode memory from short-term into long-term storage for later use. LTP is also a factor in what people call brain plasticity, which according to is “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections through life.” This basically means the brain is a dynamic organ that can change to compensate for injury, different activities, or new situations. As an example, for a person that plays guitar the neural connections that control the movement of fingers will be enlarged, allowing for more sophisticated use of those fingers. The professor and myself also hypothesized that music may in fact be a catalyst to stimulate the neurons in a listener’s brain, allowing for an increase neural strength and thus an increase in one’ ability to retain information. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to measure LTP accurately without being intrusive surgically. In the future, however, technology may render this as a non-issue. Much as the MRI machine can take a picture of brain’s activities, so too might a machine be able to measure the neural stimulation in the brain.

Other Factors
During my first professor interview  we discussed a number of different factors I had not previously considered that would all go into how the music may affect the studying process. First and foremost, not all “learning” is the same. Different areas of the brain will be utilized for the different types of work we as students do, such as reading comprehension, writing and organizing an essay, or mathematics. So while the strong beats and brain synchronization we discussed earlier may positively improve mathematics or outline organization, it may have very little to do with reading comprehension, if not negatively affect it. Students also show differences in their preferred learning styles. What I mean by this is that while some students are more visual learners, others may learn better through kinesthetic movement. While some students perform better through categorical learning, others may find it easier to memorize what they need by turning it into a song. For those people that are more auditory learners, music may impact their ability to study the most, though whether that is positive or negative consequence would most likely depend on other factors such as genre and volume.


studying (Photo credit: English106)

The last factor that will impact a person’s working efficiency is simply what music they like the most. Personal choice of genre and volume of the music people listen to while they study are both important in effecting productivity, positively or negatively. For example, a person that absolutely hates country music would simply not be able to concentrate on their work, no matter how strong the beat is or if their neural activity is increased for prolonged periods of time. My best advice for a student that wants to use music the most efficiently in their studying process, for whatever reason they choose, is to simply try out different genres of music for different types of work until they find what strategy works the best for them. If a person finds lyrics distracting, they should trying listening to instrumental music. If a person finds themselves singing along with the Billboard Top 40 playlist instead of writing their essay, they could try out some cool jazz. If students find they have to crank up the volumes just to hear their own thoughts, they should definitely consider buying more sound isolative headphones. With the recent advent of ever increasingly powerful portable music players and online music streaming, it has never been easier to find the music best tailored for a personalized study experience.

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Professor Interviews

Magnetic Resonance Imaging - Human brain side view

After my first interview with a biology student here at JMU who has a particular interest in both neurology and music, I interviewed two biology professors, who have asked to remain anonymous due to faculty protocols. They were both very helpful in giving not only their personal input, but also providing different ways to look at the question of music and the brain.

The areas of the brain most active during studying, according to the first professor, are the Pre-Frontal Cortex, which deals with attention and cognition, and the hippocampus, which deals with memory. According to him, there are lots of findings that show music is great at improving the activities in these areas of the brain by making them work at a higher functioning power than normal. Both the professors and the Biology student had mentioned the positive impact of a song’s rhythm and oscillatory properties on the brain’s ability to pattern, organize, and analyze. The consistent rhythms in the music’s beats seem to increase the cognitive strength of these areas of the brain in general, especially when working on subjects such as math that involve higher levels of organization and reasoning. The second professor also mentioned the positive benefits of utilizing more than one area of the brain at the same time. This is why many science classes will have lectures, where you read the information beforehand, then hear it from a professor, while writing down the notes, and then a lab, where you learn with hands on practice. If you can combine your senses, you simply will learn better.

English: Drawing illustrating the process of s...

Music may also have an impact on a complex function of the brain known as Long-Term Potentiation (LTP). According to Wikipedia, LTP is a “long-lasting enhancement in signal transmission between two neurons that results from stimulating them synchronously.” That basically means that the repeated use of the neuron will strengthen them (known as synaptic strength), which relates to synaptic plasticity, or the “ability of chemical synapses to change their strength.”  This process is almost like a muscle in your body getting stronger after holding something heavy for a long period of time. In this case, that muscle is like the neuron that is kept stimulated. You are activating these neurons, and keeping them at a heightened state of cognition for as long as you are focusing. LTP is now thought to be closely related to our brain encodes long-term memories, so in a sense listening to music over a long period of time may help you retain memories more effectively.

One factor that the first professor mentioned about the effects music might have on the brain while studying was the fact that not all learning is the same. The same type of music may have completely different effects on a student depending on whether that student’s work depends on reading comprehension, writing, or mathematics. It also depends a lot of what that person may prefer to listen to. My second interviewee brought up the point that music may have different effects on people who have different styles of learning. Some people, as we should know, are visual learners, while others are more categorical, or even kinesthetic (learning through movement). For those people that are auditory learning, music may have the most impact, such as those of us who remember information the best when we can put it into a little tune. Unfortunately for a question as complicated as whether music can affect the brain while studying, the only answer that can be definitive is “yes is can,” while the answer to “how?” is “it depends.”

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An Interview with a Biology Student

After collecting the data from the student survey, the next step from my objectives was the collect more information from the experts. My first interview was with a Biology major here at JMU. She was very helpful in giving not only her personal input, but also providing different resources to use in my project. This prototype interview also gave me some new perspectives on how to improve my questions for later interviews with professors.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

In what ways do you think listening to music might help or hinder the studying process?

“There seem to be numerous sides to this conflict, but I support the side that state music improves a student’s performance dramatically. According to My Science Dictionary (, music actually helps you think and analyze better. It can also put you in a better mood.”

“It seems to be that it is the student’s direct choice if music make them perform better on a test than not listening to music. They should use whatever strategy that works best for them. I believe that listening to soft music, in a study environment that resembles a testing environment is the best set-up for ideal productiveness in exam preparation.”

Do you think the type of music, such as genre, affects focus?

“Music with stronger beats cause brain waves to resonate in such a wawy that they are in sync with the music. This brings about higher levels of alertness and concentration.”

Do you think the volume of music affects ability to focus?

I definitely think that volume has an impact on focus, mostly becuase if something is blaring into your ears, you might find it difficult to focus on anything but the music. I would go for putting your music on intermediate or soft volume and have it more as a background noise. That way the music is still there, you can still hear it, and it is still positively impacting performance, but it isn’t being distracting.”

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Survey Completion Part 2

Question 4: “Do you find listening to music while studying to be helpful?”
Chart Question 4

This graph indicates a large percentage of people that are pretty unsure about the effects of music while studying, but without more information of the subject this is exactly what I thought the responses would be.

Question 5: “Can music hinder your ability to study and focus effectively?”

Chart Question 5

Like stated for the Question 4 chart, people don’t honestly know if music helps or hurts them. It seems for both of these questions, around half of the people feel like music might be able to help, and music might be able to hurt. From the research I’ve completed thus far on the topic, that may be not too far from the truth.

Question 6: “How do you think music might help or hinder your ability to study effectively?”

Question 6 How it Affects

In this final question, I wanted to see people’s thoughts on the ways in which music can be beneficial or harmful. Not surprisingly, many people said music can be distracting, but it can also help you focus. In the research and information gathered from interviews with JMU Biology professors and students, I will explore the ways in which music might help people focus, or cause people to lose that focus.

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Survey Completion Part 1

With the survey coming to a close, it was not time to sit down an analyse the results. Through the power of Survey Monkey and Facebook, I was able to easily obtain a large sample size, with 49 people taking the time to answer my questions about their study habits in regards to music. Thank you to all of those that took the survey, it is a tremendous help and a significant source of data to use. After fiddling around with Microsoft Excel for a good hour, I have made graphs for each of the questions of the survey to better help convey the data.

**Click on the graphs for an enlarged picture!

Question 1 – “How often to you listen to music while studying?”

Chart Question 1
Though these percentages may not be perfect, seeing as the sample size was less than 50 people, it still seems to point to a rather large majority of people that at least some of the time listen to music while they study.



Question 2: “What are some of the reasons that you listen to music while studying?”

Question 2 Graph
**Click on graph to enlarge photo

For many of the survey questions, the responses were open-ended, allowing those who took the survey to write their own answers. While this is great for qualitative research, but it also requires categorizing and grouping to come up with quantitative results. The values you see in this graph are the number of times one of these groupings was used in a students answer. This means some students were counted more than once in different categories. This is okay, though, as the focus here is not percentage of students that use each reason, but rather what were the most popular reasons in general.

Question 3: “What are some of types of music you listen to while studying for music?”

Question 3 Loud v. Soft ChartQuestion 3 Lyrics BarQuestion 3 Popular Genres Bar

These graphs are different ways I was able to categorize the same question. The first graph is a comparison of whether the respondents listened to exclusively softer music, exclusively louder music, or didn’t seem to show a preference. The second graph was looking for whether people were more likely to seek out instrumental pieces. While many respondents clearly indicated that they only listened to non-lyrical tracks, they did not seem to be the majority. The final graph I just found interesting. I was not able to categorize all of the musical choices respondents gave me, as the answers ranged from Classical to Melodic Death Viking Metal and KPop, but the most popular genre overall was an instrumental genre.

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Project Proposal – The Discussion

The human brain is in many ways like the super computer that keeps us alive. It runs all of our organs, lets us control our bodies, and of course gives us the ability to think. With new research conducted all the time, it seems our brains are for more powerful than we had ever previously imagined. This is why it is so interesting to see how much music plays a part in affecting how our brain functions. What I plan on focusing on is whether the brains can increase its cognitive thinking ability with the addition of music. To sum it up, does music help us study?


Studying (Photo credit: scui3asteveo)

This research would be directly related to students because of its focus on study habits that many of us choose to employ. My first step would be to survey different students on whether or not they listen to music while they study, and if they do what kind do they prefer? Are quieter genres like jazz and classical preferred or energizing genres like rock and pop? I would also ask subjects what reasons they have for listening to music while they prepare for tests, such as to focus, block out other noises, or stay awake. Lastly I would ask students whether they thought that music helped their ability to focus on work or if it hindered it.

Because of possible lurking factors such as sleep amount, time studied, and quality of notes I would not ask for test scores or GPA. However, I could also ask these students to take a quick memory test, preceded by a study time with music or not playing. The studying would have a standardized amount of time with a control group listening to no music, a group with a soft song, and a group with a loud song. From this data it would be easier to assess whether there was a correlation between listening to music while studying and grades.

Following the survey and memory test I would plan on going to different Health Science and Biology Professors here at JMU to see their thoughts on the study, and what information they had regarding music’s affect on the brain. Does there seem to be any correlation between music listening and ability to retain information? And is it positive or negative? There are lots of fascinating findings on what exactly music and the brain can do that I would think a professor could accurately share.

After the data was collected, I would try to present my findings in a way that was appealing to students, and interesting to scholars. This could be in a research paper, a PowerPoint, a news article, or even a blog. The finished project would include graphs, pictures, and maybe even some music clips. There have been lots of studies regarding the same questions of memory and music, but many students do not seem to know the benefits or consequences of plugging the iPod in before an exam. Hopefully this project will answer whether music can be helpful to studying and be an interesting take on different study habits.

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Original Key Objectives


  1. Find out what students listen to, while they study for their classes and why.
  2. See if those students feel that listening to music helps or hinders their ability to retain information.
  3. Run memory tests to examine correlation between grades and study environments.
  4. Interview JMU Biology Professors and current health students for information on how the brain and music are related.
  5. Present findings about the benefits or consequences of studying with the iPod on in a way that is appealing for students and professors.
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