What type of music is best for learning?

Music that relaxes you is best. The most relaxing music follows a tempo and rhythm that synchronizes with the natural rhythms of the body – the pulse and heartbeat. When you listen to such relaxing music, you are better able to focus inward, without being distracted. Those are the ideal conditions for enhancing your learning capacity.

Most music does not fill that bill. The majority of music most of us listen to in the course of a day is designed to entertain, to take us outside of ourselves, and to create a certain amount of excitement. Usually this is achieved by setting a tempo that is faster than the normal heart rate (about 70 beats per minute). When you listen to fast music, your heartbeat tends to speed up as if to keep pace – the effect is exciting, but not relaxing.

In order for music to increase concentration and learning capacity, it has to synchronize with your natural heartbeat. As you listen to those “naturally-paced” rhythms, your breath and heartbeat become calm and regular. If the beat is even slightly slower, say about 60 beats per minute, your heartbeat will slow down to that pace. You enter a deeply relaxed state in which your brainwaves shift from their usual beta frequency of 13-to-39 cycles per second (cps) to the alpha range, about 8 cps. (The earth itself is said to have a specific harmonic resonance – an electromagnetic field – pulsing at 8 cycles per second, or 8 Hertz.) To put it simply, your body relaxes and your mind becomes alert. 

Baroque music

The slow (“largo” or “adagio”) movements of Baroque music – composed by such 17th and 18th century musicians as Vivaldi and Bach – follow the 60-beats-per-minute pattern that has the most powerful and relaxing effect on the mind. Music played by string instruments, especially the harp, violin, mandolin and guitar, in 4/4 time, seems to have the most beneficial effect on improving learning, memory and concentration.

Such music can help students do better on tests. That’s what Jannalea Hoffman, a music therapist at the University of Kansas, found. Hoffman created a new baroque piece of music that followed these slow patterns and played it as background music for a group of nursing students taking a test; the control group did not hear the music. Hoffman found that those listening to the music had lower heart rates – and higher test scores than the control group.  (The results were published in The Journal of Nursing Education, Feb. 1990). Hoffman is conducting further tests to verify her preliminary findings that similar music, slowed down even further to 50 beats per minute, can be effective in not only reducing stress and blood pressure, but reducing pain, speeding healing and preventing illness.

Music and healing

Music has also been shown to ease pain. Doctors at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cleveland reported that patients exposed to Vivaldi, Mozart and Brahms before and during surgery needed lower doses of sedation and painkillers. The head of the coronary care unit at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, Dr. Raymond Bahr, has said that he believes half an hour of this slow baroque music produces the same effect as 10 mg. of Valium.

Even plants have been found to benefit from the effects of this rhythmic variety of music. A researcher named Dan Carlson of Blaine, MN, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records by exposing his purple passion plant to this music – and growing the world’s largest purple passion plant: 1400 feet long compared to the usual 18 inches. The music, Carlson claimed, enabled the plant to absorb nutrients with 700 percent greater efficiency. Prince Charles, in 1992, used this same musical method on his roses. He was able to produce 65 roses per branch instead of the usual five.

Music has also been used as a mnemonic (memory-training) device to learn a second language. Many schools in Europe employ this approach, called The Tomatis Method. Though it has gained wide acceptance abroad, it is not yet being adopted much in the US. So now that you know what type of music is best for learning, how can you use it in your everyday life? I’ll share my practical tips for everyday learning in the next blog post.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at EmpowHER.com since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Amazon.com. Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.