Music is a very powerful force, and not just socially or artistically. Even in the realm of cognition, learning, and memory, music plays a large role, with certain melodies capable of galvanizing your brain's many processes.
Science has proven this fact, as brain-imaging technologies have revealed that music activates the same parts of the brain used when trying to pay attention, recalling memories, and predicting trends. With that in mind, music can play a larger role when learning and studying than just being "background noise."
That said, not all types of music have such a beneficial effect on the brain. Genre, style, and other factors can determine whether or not a particular song will help you study or detract from learning. So before you start playing Kesha on repeat (or is that just me?) take some of these findings on music and cognition into consideration.
No Words & Moderate Volume
Before delving into the genres of music best suited for studying, it's fairly important to make all y'all aware of two pretty important factors when choosing study-tunes: the presence of lyrics and the volume of the music.
Now, many of you are probably already aware that music with lyrics can be more distracting than those without, thus leading to a more difficult study session. The issue lies in the human brain's cognition of speech. When people are talking, you're automatically inclined to listen, and thus become distracted.
Workplace studies have found that speech is "the number one cause of reduced productivity," which probably isn't much of a surprise. You seek out quiet study spots for a reason, after all. Lyrics in music largely mimic the same effect as audible speech, forcing you to focus on the words of the song than the task at hand.
Lesser known, however, is the impact of a music's volume on one's learning process. Low levels of ambient noise may seem like the best option when studying, as it doesn't get in the way of your concentration as much, but the truth is the opposite. Moderate music levels (70 decibels) are found to be ideal, as it actually forces your brain to concentrate harder.
By imposing sound on your brain, moderate music levels force "a higher construal level," which then leads to an increase in abstract thought and creativity. Basically, "normal" thought patterns are blocked by the moderate noise, and so your brain comes up with more creative solutions. So if you're a liberal arts student, keeping your tunes on a medium noise level may be the answer to finding a creative angle to your essay's thesis.
Increasing noise levels beyond medium (85 decibels) were found to impede creativity, however, so the effect does have its limits. For some context, the ideal 70-decibel-noise-level is about the equivalent of a shower or a vacuum cleaner.
With those fairly important precepts out of the way, lets get on to the types and styles of music that can actually improve your study habits.
Usually lacking vocals and with irregular tempos and rhythms, jazz music is an excellent genre to choose when you need to hit the books.
Some fairly concrete facts to uphold this sentiment lie in cognitive research performed on actual jazz musicians, in which brain patterns were mapped out during a performance. In the study, musicians were asked to play a memorized musical piece twice, one time as they were told to play it and the second with a fair amount of improvisation.
During the second, improvised run, areas in the brain linked to creativity and linguistic cognition were far more active, making some believe the same can happen when individuals simply listen to jazz music.
The alternating, back-and-forth playing style typical of jazz music has also been found to influence the brain much like language does. So when listening, your brain is reacting to the music like it would language, an unwitting cognitive exercise that can keep the mind focused.
In your first Google search of "best music to study to" there's almost a 100% guarantee that classical music popped up. The assertion makes sense, too, given the lack of vocals in classic music and its generally calming tone. But even though everyone and their mother has heard about the cognitive benefits of classical music, that isn't to say there isn't a fair amount of information to back up the popularized claim.
About a year ago, scientists got down to the cognitive mechanics of classical music's effect on one's mind. Using brain-imaging technology, the researchers found a notable increase in the "activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion...synaptic neurotransmission, learning and memory, and down-regulated...neurodegeneration." Basically, classical music was found to make you happier, smarter, and prevent a loss of memory, exactly what you want when studying.
One composer is particularly noteworthy for being a huge help to the brain, and actually has a specific term to refer to his music's ability to jumpstart cognitive processes, "the Mozart effect." Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music has been known to improve cognitive performance, at least for a short while, effectively making listeners somewhat smarter.
And since there are tons of classical composers to choose from, Mozart, given his longstanding reputation for making folks more intelligent may be your best starting point.
Video Game Music
While there isn't much scientific research backing up the claim that video game music is ideal for studying, plenty of people have asserted the claim, so there must be some truth behind it.
Popularized by a few posts on reddit, video game music is designed to "help [with] concentration without putting a strain on your mind." Scores of commenters on such threads have passionately agreed, believing video game tracks to be the best study music there is.
And when you think about it, the theory makes sense. When traversing through Mushroom Kingdom, Skyrim, or the Water Temple, you don't want an insanely distracting score to stop you from solving a puzzle or landing a difficult jump. Video game music practically needs to be concentration-inducing for the game itself to even work.
But for those who aren't into listening to NES-produced sounds, a great life pro-tip is to find covers of famous video game tracks performed by orchestras. You might even gain the cognitive benefits of listening to classical music that way, too.
The Sounds Of Nature
When thinking about study-tunes, we almost always jump into how the music in question will affect your brain. But another, just as useful way to go about it, is to consider how whatever you're listening to is actually "masking" other, potentially distracting noises.
In truth, that's what most people want out of their study music anyways, some form of audio that will just block out all of the annoying conversations happening around them. And for that, nature sounds may be the best option.
Published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, a study was enacted that delved into the ideal audio for creating a productive cognitive environment. The use of "natural" sounds was demonstrated to be the best, being able to mask unwanted noise while enhancing cognitive functioning, optimizing the ability to concentrate, and increasing overall...satisfaction."
A best-of-both-worlds kind of situation, nature sounds can simultaneously decrease one's proneness to distraction while improving cognitive performance.
Reggae, Pop, Metal, Rap
Honestly, whatever you like that fits your fancy could be the best music to study to, at least for you. While your favourite tracks may be riddled with verbose lyrics and complex rhythms, some experts believe that your simple enjoyment of such music can help your brain maintain a strong level of production.
This has been proven to be true in physical performance. In a study that had some participants play their favourite tunes before a training session while others didn't, the former group displayed a marked improvement in performance. Much-loved music was demonstrated to help participants "get in the zone," and the same process could transition over to studying.
Besides, you probably already know the words to your fave songs inside and out, and so don't really get distracted by them. With that, the simple boost in enjoyment you get from listening to them might be the best way to get through a really long study session.
Or Head To A Concert
Okay, so it may sound kind of ridiculous to say "head to a concert" when you're actually looking for music that will help you hunker down and study, but just hear me out.
Recently, a study was published that found a direct correlation between reduced levels of stress hormones, and concerts. Namely, that attending a live music performance resulted in a lowering of participant's cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.
And since exam-season is the most stressful, with all that studying keeping you behind a desk, seeing a show could be just the break you need to have you hit the books even harder.