Does Music Help or Hurt Your Studying?

15 Mar, 2013

In high school gym class, power walking was my exercise of choice; not because it was easy but because I could walk, text, listen to music, and read a book all at once.

In college now, with essays, presentations, internships, job applications, the pending burden of loans and unemployment, and maybe a social life, the space between the Humanities Library and Bellevue Mental Ward starts to narrow. The solution to the “problem” of college life becomes less about time management and more about personal comfort.

Just as diets are a temporary solution to the permanent problem of adequate nutrition, eradicating distraction from your life is more deprivation than improvement. It seems that the amount of emails, notifications, and assignments we receive increases every day, and with that, so does the opportunity for distraction.

In the ever-popular field of music cognition, studies express conflicting opinions on whether or not music aids focus in work or study. Though most research indicates that music hinders short-term memory and cognition, these findings neglect one critical fact: our worlds are getting noisier. Ask anyone suffering through the second-hand music leaking from your Dre Beats.

I bought noise-canceling headphones so I could bottle up my world when I’m in the library, at the café, or caught next to a random smattering of doofuses relaying their previous night’s escapades. When I found myself wasting more time shuffling through songs than I was completing the work I set out to finish, I began to wonder,  what kind of music will place me in the state of comfort and attention to be productive and sane?

The consensus among cognitive scientists is that lyrics interfere with studying. According to Clifford Nass, a Stanford University Professor, “the human brain listens to song lyrics with the same part that does word processing, which is the same part that supposedly is being employed for studying.”

Professor Nass continues, “Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you’re writing or reading. Probably less of an effect on math, if you’re not using the language parts of your brain.” In that case, the top 40 pop music blasting in the café probably won’t help… In an article called, “Music and the Mind,” Dr. Ballam writes, “The human mind shuts down after three or four repetitions of a rhythm, or a melody, or a harmonic progression.” Disagree? Call Me, Maybe.

That leaves instrumental music as the best alternative. Although I’m no society type, I take some pleasure in a waltz or two. Since my ears are attentive to some of classical music’s nuances, I have to be careful in the songs I choose; for instance, though Gustav Mahler’s a God, his music is too magnificent for reading a marketing textbook. With jazz, one moment I’ll be reading a Marxist critique of depression-Era musicals, and next thing I know my mind is trading fours with Charlie Parker. Simple solo works on piano or guitar, like Chopin, Ravel, Satie, or Segovia, are probably most appropriate. Chamber music is no prison either.

The solution, according to time management firm [email protected], is to listen to unfamiliar music. Since familiar music releases dopamine to the brain (just as food and other forms of pleasure can), music you like will bring you joy, but not always an A on your accounting assignment. That doesn’t mean you should listen to music you dislike. Glenn Schellenberg, a psychology professor at University of Toronto, published a study that finds fast, loud background music, such as metal, hinders reading comprehension.

Downtempo foreign language tracks or artists with calming music and a general disregard for elocution provide a pleasant middle ground. In the “foreign language category” (the silliness of such a category makes my mind tingle, but nonetheless), I find Latin American, and Portuguese language artists to be the most effective study aids. Balkan and West African music are also beautiful, but the fast tempos and exotic high-pitched sounds might be distracting (you also might find yourself dancing in lieu of finishing that lab report).

If you find crystal clear vocals secondary to soundscape, artists like Beirut, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, Beach House, Middle East, Yo La Tengo, and pretty much any schlomo with an 8-track recorder and an ounce of lawn clippings might make the right study soundtrack for you.

Some useful tools for curating your playlists are the music streaming services Songza, Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio.

Like acing an essay, finding the perfect music for your study environment is part effort and part divine intervention. Sometimes the song makes sense; sometimes an idea rings true.

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