New study finds high achievers are Taylor Swift listeners

Despite the fact that Swift was a teenage dropout, her music seems to resonate with the brighest minds


Asha Bukharbaeva

10/18/20239 min read

Sitting down and picking out the perfect study playlist is a tradition that seems to be cemented in almost every student’s routine. Whether it’s Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, or Lucid Dreams by Juice WRLD, music defines study experiences as much as it does our normal everyday lives outside of academic work. While some prefer wordless music, like classical, lo-fi, or even a movie soundtrack, some students choose to listen to today’s biggest artists, and the biggest music hits appear on their study playlists. Every generation has its icons–its familiar sounds, its songs everyone knows–and for Gen-Z and Millennials, Taylor Swift stands as one of the most influential and beloved artists of their time. While music preferences often vary greatly among individuals, especially in study spaces, a curious trend has emerged: students with higher GPAs (Grade Point Average) listen to Taylor Swift more frequently than any other artist during study sessions, according to a study done by College Rover. This seemingly unrelated correlation has piqued the curiosity of researchers and sparked debate in academic circles.

What exactly is a GPA?

Before the potential reasons for this correlation can be discussed, some vital things to note are what a GPA is, and its importance to education, especially to getting to University. A Grade Point Average is the metric determined by American universities, as well as high schools, to measure how well you scored in your courses, on average. Grade ranges are assigned a specific grade point equivalent. For example, any grade between 100 and 97 is a 4.0, from 96 to 93 is a 3.7, and so on, until you hit the failing grades of 65% and below, which are the equivalent of a 0.0. All of the grades you receive in each of your classes is calculated according to this scale, and your GPA for each class is added to your total, forming your average GPA. Thus, the better you do in your classes and the higher your grades are, the higher your GPA will be.

A lot of weight is placed throughout high school on your GPA, so that you have the best chance you can of getting into a good university. While your GPA is not the only thing looked at by colleges to determine your acceptance, it does indicate how well you were able to do academically, one of the bigger consideration factors of succeeding in college. Once you arrive at university, maintaining a good GPA–or, high grades–will often become more difficult, but oftentimes will be a factor in many job applications upon graduation. Students will find that certain jobs they wish to apply to have GPA cutoffs, and even some exclusive student organizations on college campuses have minimum GPA requirements for membership.

Who is Taylor Swift?

Taylor Swift, a multi-award-winning singer-songwriter, first captured hearts as a country music sensation and later transformed into a global pop superstar. Her perceptibly authentic storytelling and relatable lyrics resonate with millions of listeners worldwide. Over the years, Swift's music has evolved, delving into various genres, and consistently delivering chart-topping hits that have made a strong emotional impact on her fans and generated a fearsome following of "Swifties".

Taylor Swift’s relation to higher education

While Swift had plans to attend college herself, these were swept under the rug when her music career took off unexpectedly. She signed a music publishing deal at the age of 16. Her debut album, ‘Taylor Swift’, was released in 2006, when she was just 17 years old, and became a massive success. Given her newfound success and busy schedule as a recording artist and performer, Swift’s plans for higher education were put on hold indefinitely.

Even though her formal education did not include a college degree, Taylor Swift has become an advocate for education nonetheless. In 2015, she established the “Taylor Swift Education Center” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, which aimed to provide educational programs and opportunities for young people.

In March 2022, Swift received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from New York University, where she also gave a speech for graduates in the class of 2022 at NYU’s morning commencement event at Yankee Stadium. Her speech was highly appreciated among students, as she thanked parents for the impact they have had on the educational success of their children, pointed out the difficulties and joys of life, and emphasized how grateful she was to receive the Award. The part students loved the most was when the artist encouraged them to embrace the ‘cringe’ and learn to live alongside it. ‘No matter how hard you try to avoid being cringe, you will look back on your life and cringe retrospectively.’

Higher GPA and music consumption

Despite Swift’s interest in the education world, this does not explain how listening to her music correlates with higher GPAs among students. However, scholarship on the relationship between focus and music has long existed. Researchers began examining the relationship between music preferences and academic performance in an attempt to understand the psychological factors that drive students to excel academically. While it is essential to remember that correlation does not imply causation, the findings of the new study have sparked some interesting discussions - and sit oddly given the existing literature on the topic, which we will later discuss.

Music or no music?

Perhaps the biggest debate is whether or not to even listen to music while studying. In fact, only 38% of students say that they often listen to music while studying. Many find it distracting, even instrumental or classical music, and prefer to just work in silence. Those that do choose to listen to music, however, do not even seem to be reaching for pop music, or any of the many genres that Swift’s music spans–the most popular study music according to Spotify analysis is lofi. Despite all of this, those with the highest GPAs (3.5–4.0) have Swift as their top artist. This is a tricky phenomenon, one that does not seem to have a perfect answer for why it occurs. There are several reasons that high achievers in academia choose to listen to Swift when they are studying.

Emotionally nourished students: does Swift’s relatability give her music power?

Taylor Swift's music often revolves around themes of love, heartbreak, and self-discovery. Students with higher GPAs might find solace in her relatable lyrics, whereas those with lower GPAs might possess worse self-regulation of their affective peaks and troughs, leading to more unstable learning progression. The emotional connection with her music could provide a sense of comfort, relaxation, and focus during stressful times, which could contribute to their academic success. Furthermore, higher education can be demanding, leading to stress and anxiety among students. Taylor Swift's music has been recognized for its soothing melodies and empowering messages, which could serve as an effective stress-reliever. Those with higher GPAs may turn to her music to unwind and recharge, potentially enhancing their overall well-being and cognitive abilities.

Swift’s supportive lyrics may provide motivation to work through difficult tasks

Taylor Swift's music often portrays messages of empowerment and resilience. Students who regularly listen to her songs might get motivated by her stories of overcoming challenges and finding success in the face of adversity. This newfound motivation could inspire them to set higher academic goals and push their boundaries, or work harder or try and focus more on their work and tasks.

The scholarly evidence is not as clear

Although College Rover's study produced decisive results from a large sample of over 1000 students, previous literature on the topic has found that people usually listen to background music less when performing difficult tasks. The results of Goltz and Sadakata's 2021 study, for example, show that the use of background music is both a phenomenon predominantly confined to young people and trivial tasks. Deep focus results in elimination of music use while focusing, or at a minimum, greater pickiness about music type.

More recent research has also indicated that Spotify's study playlists are on some dimensions indistinguishable from its sleep selections, superficially suggesting that the role of study music is to function as background noise rather than as an extrinsic, or external motivator. Scarratt, Heggli, Vuust, and Sadakata's 2023 paper noted the large number of people who use music to help fall asleep and to study, the former attracting 46% positive respondents. Yet on a few dimensions - absence of lyrics, live or studio performance, and tempo, sleep and study music had similar properties.

However, the conclusions stated in the abstract and summary conceal the market dissimilarities. Although the python and dataset metholodogy, along with Spotify's own classification of genre for each song, are fairly reliable, the extrapolation from the graphs is not. Study and general music both tend to be far more similar to each other in terms of danceability than sleep music. According to all the other metrics, like use of acoustic instruments, energy, valence (positivity), and loudness, study music falls somewhere in between the other two. The researchers suggest that the data supports the hypothesis that a plurality of music styles used within the same sleep or study contexts caters for personality variety. Or in other words, that the similarity of sleep and study music overall suggests people pick and choose whatever music works best for them, whether in a sleep or study scenario, depending on their personal inclinations and taste.

Though we can see wide variation in danceability, energy, valence and tempo according to the graphs below, we have to remember that people listen to music a lot - 20.1 hours a week on average, which works out to 367 tracks. The sheer amount of music consumption is likely to be driving the marked increase in music taste diversity, for which there is already scholarly evidence. People just get bored to listening to the same kind of thing over and over again. Even from 1982 to 1992, researchers found that those with high cultural knowledge had started becoming omnivorous, absorbing a wider range of genres of the arts.

To put it all together, it seems that sheer volume of consumption drives variety within sleep and study playlists, resulting in the wide variation in danceability, energy, valence and tempo that we observe within use cases. On the other hand, embedded activity traits of individual focus and sleep, properties or needs for these activities which don’t change much between individuals, explain the similarities. These embedded activity traits include the need to minimise vocal noise, minimise flow-state-breaking live audience clapping and shouting noise, and synchronise tempo with your natural biological rhythms, like slower heartbeat and breathing in the case of study and sleep.

Taylor Swift’s music, being pop or country by genre, is likely to score fairly average on most categories by comparison to general music, theoretically indicating that it would not be the optimal study music for most people. If College Rover’s study is representative, it might suggest that people who like listening to Taylor Swift are unusually able to balance high energy or lyrical music with studying. This might indicate superior multitasking ability or focus. It could also be that those who tend to listen to very popular mainstream artists do so because they invest less time in deeply exploring their music taste, preferring to invest that time in achieving academic goals. Finally, the third hypothesis is that Swift's music is simply some of the most popular, meaning that it crops up most frequently in the surveys for intelligent people who tend to be more omnivorous today, as the previously mentioned study suggests.

Conclusion: Taylor Swift's music may affect bright students in unorthodox ways

Taylor Swift's music is known and loved by many. The unusual link between her songs and good grades might be due to a wide range of reasons - some of which, like ability to multitask, or focus on academics over hobbies, we have covered here. As with many studies, the conclusions are not definite.

But whether it's on your playlists or not, studies like this might make you think twice about whether you listen to music while studying, and what you listen to. Whatever the explanation for Swift's apparent popularity with high achievers, it's important to identify whether your study setup is working best for you. Understanding and working toward your learning goals in a smart and effective way is just as important, if not more, as the time you put in. In the run up to university entrance exams and tests, busy students need to maximise the limited time they have alongside their existing schoolwork.