24 Jul 2012

Should you study while listening to music?

Imagine that it’s late at night and you’re driving down an empty, abandoned road. You’d really like to accelerate to 60 miles per hour and go for a joyride, but there is literally a stop sign at every corner. You can’t gain speed because you’re constantly coming to a complete stop.

This is basically what happens when you listen to stimulating music while studying. Music—filled with changing notes, fluxing tempos, and passionate lyrics—periodically begs you to pay attention. Every time the music catches your ear, you are interrupted from your studies. As a result, it becomes harder to achieve that state of deep, meditative focus necessary to painlessly, efficiently and meaningfully complete your work.

In this blog entry, I will explain the drawbacks and benefits of studying while listening to music. Following this, I will provide suggestions for creating a playlist that is appropriate for study.

Multitasking… it’s a myth!

True focus requires total absorption in the assignment at hand. When engrossed in a task, we become completely ignorant of irrelevant information. We forget our bodies, our surroundings and we lose sense of time. This is because the brain is simply incapable of paying attention to more than one thing at once. Multitasking, in other words, is an urban myth.

Eric Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, explained this concept in an interview for NPR. According to Miller, when we think we are multitasking, we are actually quickly but completely switching focus between different things. Attempting to do two things at once thus does not heighten your productivity; it slows you down because each task is to the other a distraction.

And so, the verdict is in…
Listening to music while studying is distracting!

A 2010 study confirms that the pitfalls of multitasking apply to studying while listening to music. The study assessed the impact of different noise climates on young adults’ ability to memorize and recall a list of letters. Subjects were tested in silence, while listening to music, while listening to a voice repeat the number three, or while listening to a voice recite random numbers.

The study found that participants were best able to memorize the list when studying in silence or while listening to the voice repeat the number three. By contrast, participants did poorly if they had studied while listening to music or to a voice reciting random numbers. In short, the study suggests that predictable noise conditions nurture concentration. Whereas monotonous repetition is easily tuned out, stimulating and interesting sounds are distracting.

…But are there any benefits to hitting the books with headphones on?

Because we learn best in predictable, un-stimulating noise conditions and we’re fundamentally incapable of concentrating on two things at once, we can safely conclude that studying to music is a bad idea. So, why do many students still do it?

Just as white noise can help the sleepless rest, music may bring focus to students who are bombarded by disruptive thoughts. In addition, music can help us tune out chaotic surroundings. For such students, music is an agent of seclusion and a shield against distraction.

Research from the 1990s has also suggested that listening to music—especially classical music—helps the brain transfer newly learned information to long-term memory. Such research proposes that the brain processes information more effectively when both the right and left hemispheres of the brain are activated. Whereas studying excites the left hemisphere of the brain, classical music activates the right.

This research further submits that listening to music excites the senses, elevates mood and reduces blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In short, listening to music primes the mind for methodical study.

So, listening to music while studying is distracting AND beneficial?! What should I do???

To increase motivation and avoid distraction, students should assemble a study playlist that consists mainly of pleasant but monotonous sounds. These sounds will readily fade to background noise while also blocking distracting thoughts and surroundings. Some suggestions include:

Exciting music has a place in our study playlist too. As we saw above, stimulating music simultaneously reduces stress and energizes the mind; in short, it prepares you to study. Therefore, for maximum results, students should BEGIN their playlists with ear-catching instrumental songs. Listen to these songs before you begin to study in earnest. Including one such song to mark every hour of your playlist will also signal your mind to take an occasional rest.

Some awesome and exciting (mostly) instrumental artists to check out:

You are now prepared to create the ultimate study playlist! However, don’t forget to experiment by studying to different artist and songs!

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