What’s the best music to study to? Aim for predictability, says Penn professor

Maria Geffen, a professor of otorhinolaryngology, neuroscience, and neurology, researches how the brain responds to music and what is conducive to studying.

Person working at laptop with headphones on.
Image: iStock/shironosov

Reading Days at Penn span May 2-5, marking the fuzzy, study-intensive liminal space between the end of class sessions and the much-anticipated end of finals. Making the most of these early mornings and late nights to get to the latter phase can feel essential. 

That’s where music can smooth the ride, largely as a source of pleasure during an otherwise brain-intensive activity. 

Playlists for this purpose can be endless: flowing streams of lo-fi beats, coffeehouse acoustic ditties, and jazz instrumentals. But what’s actually most conducive to studying and concentration?

The answer, according to science, is a bit hard to predict. 

“Music taps into what we call ‘prediction and reward brain pathways,’” explains Maria Geffen, a professor of otorhinolaryngology, neuroscience, and neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s the same reward signals as we might experience when we eat something sweet, when we smoke a cigarette, when we eat a satisfying meal, or interact with someone socially and have a pleasant experience. Music has a unique way to evoke those signals in the brain, and composers play with that.”

In fact, she says, the pleasure we receive from music is rather unique to humans, as it is currently understood. Very few animals have been documented as processing music in the same way. One theory of why that is: Our music is relational, or social.

“Music brings people together, and maybe that’s another reason why people enjoy music even when [studying]—it makes you feel less alone, so you feel like part of a social structure,” she says. “It’s a very social activity and activates the social centers of the brain.”

Mathematicians, Geffen explains, have long tried to understand the statistical predictability of compositions by Bach and other classical musicians because of how the brain responds to this predictability. It’s one factor of why music can make concentrating more enjoyable. 

“The thing about concentrating, is you don’t want to listen to dissonant music,” Geffen says. “You want to listen to music that very much has a predictive structure, that will be activating both positive emotional responses and reward responses.”

That said, there’s no hard and fast rule about what music that is, except that high-intensity music—in topic or in terms of pace—can have the opposite of the intended effect. 

“You don’t want anything that’s stealing your attention,” she says. Even lyrics can be fine for studying, she says, particularly if someone is, for example, a “Swiftie” who knows the lyrics to every song. The element of familiarity can make for a less distracting study playlist.

Jack Galbraith, a first-year student majoring in economics, says he tends to avoid music with lyrics and sticks with slower songs, like jazz standards. He also likes to listen to a YouTube playlist of “rainy, cozy café” songs.

First-year economics major Ananya Tare, however, is much more frenetic with her study-music choices: “I’ll listen to anything,” she says. Though she tends to listen to Bollywood music, she adds. 

Louis Li, meanwhile, a second-year student majoring in political science and economics, sticks with classical music but says it depends on what he’s working on. If he’s writing, for example, he avoids listening to music with lyrics. More recently, he’s been attracted to music with a longer runtime, to keep up a flow for focusing.

As for Geffen, she says with a laugh that she used to listen to Metallica while studying. Now?

“I prefer quiet,” she says.

Bruce Warren, assistant general manager for programming at WXPN, curated the special study playlist.