Studying for finals? Let classical music help
With finals starting next week, music on USC’s Classical California network can help students reduce stress, soothe insomnia and better absorb new information.
This story was first published in December 2014 and was updated in 2023.
As the season of cramming and finals approaches, get help with a healthy, easily-accessible study aid — classical music. It’s a solution that’s available 24/7 on Classical California, the USC-owned music service based at KUSC in Los Angeles and KDFC in San Francisco. Classical California is available on the radio dial, live-streamed at kusc.org or kdfc.com, or on your mobile devices using the new version of the stations’ free apps.
A number of academic studies have zeroed in on classical music, showing that listening benefits the brain, sleep patterns, the immune system and stress levels — all helpful when facing those all-important end of semester tests.
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University research in France, published in Learning and Individual Differences, found that students who listened to a one-hour lecture where classical music was played in the background scored significantly higher in a quiz on the lecture when compared to a similar group of students who heard the lecture with no music.
Studying and classical music: A better learning environment
The researchers speculated that the music put students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to information. “It is possible that music, provoking a change in the learning environment, influenced the students’ motivation to remain focused during the lecture, which led to better performance on the multiple choice quiz,” they wrote.
Worried about upcoming exams? Then pay attention to research from Duke Cancer Institute that found classical music can lessen anxiety. Researchers gave men undergoing a stressful biopsy headphones playing Bach concertos and discovered they had no spike in diastolic blood pressure during the procedure and reported significantly less pain.
But make sure you are listening to classical music, because not all music aids blood pressure, a University of San Diego study found. Scientists there compared changes in blood pressure between individuals listening to classical, jazz or pop music. Those listening to classical had significantly lower systolic blood pressure when compared to those listening to other musical genres or no music at all.
Classical music helps you relax even when you don’t pay attention to the music, a Russian study published in Human Physiology found. Children who listened to classical music for one hour a day over a six-month period exhibited brain changes that indicated greater levels of relaxation — even when the children were not asked to pay attention to the music.
Anxiety, studying and classical music
If testing anxiety causes sleepless nights, classical music can help soothe insomnia. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto found that tuning into classical music before bedtime helped people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Works by Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Bach were effective sleep aids because they use rhythms and tonal patterns that create a meditative mood and slow brainwaves, the study found.
So what selections do classical music experts favor for listeners trying to absorb new information? KUSC’s Alan Chapman suggests pieces that are more restrained to provide a nice aura in the background. Skip over large orchestral pieces, particularly those with a dynamic that ranges from whispers to booming cannons. “The 1812 Overture would not be a good study aid, unless you were studying to be a demolitions expert,” he observed.
Instead, he’d choose solo piano pieces, perhaps Mozart sonatas or French piano music by Poulenc, Debussy or Fauré. Mozart string quartets are also good choices, he said, for the regularity of phrase structure in Classic period pieces.
Guitar music is gentle enough to study by, as is lute music, which has enjoyable, dulcet tones. Sample Bach lute suites, Chapman suggested.
Elizabethan consort music from the late 16th century, played on viols, was intended to create a pleasant atmosphere at court without demanding attention, Chapman said, and is another good candidate for music to study by.
So before you turn to the books, turn on Classical California.
About Classical California: The USC Radio Group — a non-profit, listener-funded classical media organization — operates Classical California, which includes the most-listened-to network of classical music radio stations in America serving more than 900,000 listeners each week.
KUSC, located in downtown Los Angeles, serves communities throughout Southern California and is broadcast on 91.5 FM in Los Angeles and Orange counties, 88.5 FM in Palm Springs, 91.1 FM in Thousand Oaks, 93.7 FM in Santa Barbara and 99.7 FM San Luis Obispo.
KDFC, located in downtown San Francisco, serves the Bay area and other communities in Northern California and is broadcast on 90.3 FM in San Francisco, 104.9 FM in San Jose, 89.9 FM in Napa Wine Country, 103.9 FM in Monterey and 92.5 FM in Ukiah.
Listeners can also hear these stations streaming at kusc.org, kdfc.com and on their smartphone apps.