What makes the ultimate study playlist?

Will Mozart or Olivia Rodrigo get you that Band 6?

Picture it: you’re cramming for your exam, but before you can put pen to paper, you have to find the perfect playlist to soundtrack your study.

Is there one type of music that helps us focus better? We spoke with UOW lecturer and music psychologist Dr Tim Bryon to find out how your listening habits affect your focus. 

While he says there needs to be more research into specific genres, he does have some general advice for your next study session.

Leave the Mac Miller till after the exam 

While rap music is undeniably a motivator, it’s not great for memory retention says Dr Byron. 

“With music that has a lot of lyrics, it’s like someone trying to talk to you while you're trying to study, which is going to be pretty distracting,” he says.  

“One thing that seems to happen is that spoken words are processed relatively automatically. We want to avoid that because that automatic processing is taking away processing power from what you’re studying.”

Whale sounds, white noise or podcasts? 

Maybe you don’t like music while you’re studying, but you don’t like silence either. And while you might want to listen to catch up on the latest ep of your favourite podcast, it’s best to leave that till after the study session, Dr Byron says.  

“Podcasts are going to be a bad idea for the same reason as hip hop – they are distracting. Unless you’re doing simple tasks like data entry, you wouldn’t want to listen to a podcast.” 

But just because you aren’t actively listening to anything, that doesn’t mean the total absence of noise.  

“There is this assumption in a lot of literature that what happens when there’s no music is silence. Plenty of people who are reading this will know there’s plenty of noise in the background, maybe in the houses where people are trying to study,” says Dr Byron.  

This could be where something consistent like white noise comes in handy, although Dr Byron suggests pink noise for a softer sound.  

“White noise is sound at the same volume for every frequency, but that becomes pretty harsh after a while. Pink noise shapes the frequency response to be similar to human auditory perception,” he says.  

Put simply, pink noise provides that same consistent static sound, without the harsh high pitchedness.  

“The advantage of something like that is simply, if it’s loud enough, it’s blocking out some of those inconsistent sounds like your brother watching TV, your mum cooking dinner or your dad shouting down the phone that can all be very distracting.”

Dr Tim Byron is a researcher from the UOW School of Psychology with an interest in music and memory. 

Find that perfect tempo 

You might have found the perfect playlist for your intense workout, but that doesn’t fit with your morning yoga routine. The same goes for the perfect study music: it’s all about finding a beat that works for the task at hand.  

“I personally find music to fit better with more menial tasks. If I’m doing something like data entry, I’d like to listen to music, but if I’m reading something that is quite long and complex, like an academic journal, I would probably find that distracting.”

Pump the Pomodoro 

You may be familiar with the Pomodoro method. It’s a productivity technique which separates work into chunks, typically 25 minutes, separated by five-minute breaks. Dr Byron says it may be beneficial to pair this method with music, like listening to relaxing music while you study, then a motivational anthem during your five-minute break.  

“There is definitely merit to the Pomodoro method, where you say ‘okay, this is the time I’m going to spend on this, then I’ll get up, walk around and decompress and get back into it’ because people’s attention spans are not that long,” he says.  

“Music could maybe help as a way to regulate that method, because it’s as good as anything else to work a signal.”

Listen to songs that make you happy 

This one seems pretty obvious, but there is a science behind it. Dr Byron says there is no definitive proof that music helps us study harder, but it does make us feel better, which could be a factor in staying focused. 

“Some research does seem to show that when you listen to music that you like, you're in a better mood. That tends to make it easier to focus on stuff. If you're not in a great mood, it’s harder to focus because you are thinking too much about how much of a bad mood you are in. If you've got that music you enjoy, it can be easy to focus,” he says.