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The Chosen Rosen: Listening to music while studying: distraction or motivation?

Published: November 18, 2011
Section: Opinions


It’s the night before the biggest test of the semester and you haven’t read a thing besides the syllabus. And it gets worse—for the life of you, you cannot focus. So you take the walk of shame down three flights of steps to get to the dungeon in the library, you plant yourself down in front of your laptop while surrounded by an avalanche of notes, and you put your earbuds in and flip on some Kanye West to which to jam as you study. But is it really a good idea to listen to music while you prepare for your test?

Psychologists, scientists, professors and students alike are all divided on whether listening to music helps you retain information. The question is part of a much broader question that has flustered researchers for generations: Under what circumstances do we learn best?

Now, there is no clear answer because we all function differently and have different preferences. Some of us might find listening to music distracting, while others might draw on music as a source of motivation to get through the work. But, for the most part, as different as we are, we must submit to our biological and physiological dispositions. And so, if our brains cannot process information while we listen to music, then we cannot. But the question becomes: Is it possible for us to work efficiently while listening to music?

Yes and no. According to a report by CNN, if you’re reviewing for a test, putting on background music that you like is a very good idea. There are several reasons why this is so.

First of all, nobody wants to write a 10-page paper on the fundamental theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, so listening to some uplifting music like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” makes the experience more bearable and enjoyable, not to mention it inspires you to get the paper done.

In addition, listening to music that you like increases your focus on the task at hand. Simply put, it’s easier to focus when we’re surrounded by things we like doing. For me, I find it difficult to focus in many of my classes and, if I don’t have my laptop with me, I eventually fall asleep during the course of the lecture. If I have my laptop, however, I am able to surf the Web, which is something I enjoy doing, so I can stay awake and focus. Thus, listening to music that you like while studying will help you focus on studying.

Listening to music while studying also prolongs your attention span. When you are wearing your headphones, you enter your own world, your own zone, and you completely remove yourself from your physical surroundings. How many times have you been listening to music and doing work to the point that you’ve been completely unaware of what’s happening around you? Earlier this year, I was doing work in my room with my headphones on and I realized that I completely missed the fire alarm going off in my building.

While the study does reveal that listening to music is preferable while reviewing for a test, it also reveals that when you need to memorize a list of facts or data, music is definitely not the best option. The report drew on a study that was done at the University of Wales Institute, which looked at the ability of subjects to recall information while listening to different sounds. Subjects were instructed to memorize as many words in a list as possible under several sound conditions. The participants had to memorize the words in silence, while listening to music they liked, while listening to music they disliked, while listening to a voice repeating the number three and while listening to a voice reciting a series of random numbers.

This study found that subjects performed worst on the memorization task while listening to either type of music, best in the quiet condition and somewhere in between in the number-three condition. This demonstrates that when trying to memorize information, our brains store and retrieve information most efficiently with a minimal amount of outside distraction. And music, in this circumstance, is a distraction that impairs our ability to recall.

Why is this? When you’re trying to remember a list of facts, you need to be as focused on the list as possible. When Nicki Minaj is blaring in your ears, however, it is difficult to focus on the task, as opposed to concentrating on the changing notes, beat, rhythm, lyrics and melody of the song. Would you be able to memorize every element on the periodic table while listening to people around you having a loud conversation? In many ways, that’s the kind of hindrance that music poses to you when you have to perform a memorization task.

The reason for this is that music is extremely complex. When you need to perform tasks that demand your full, undivided attention, you should listen to sounds that are as simple as possible. Listening to a natural sound like a waterfall is far more beneficial than listening to a complicated genre of music like rap.

Despite all this, music can still be incredibly helpful to you when studying for a test (but not when memorizing information). But this is only if you listen to the right kind of music. It is preferable to listen to music without lyrics. Lyrics can be distracting, whereas instrumental music maximizes concentration.

Research in this field substantiates this, as scientists have found that the brain tends to focus on patterns. Thus, most mainstream music with choruses and melodies that repeat would invite the attention of the brain and make it difficult to concentrate on one’s work. On the other hand, classical music is an example of a style of music that maximizes efficiency while doing work. Since it has no lyrics, it does not pose a threat of distraction; since a lot of classical music is not repetitive, the brain does not focus on it while studying.

Another benefit of instrumental music such as classical music is that the tempo, for the most part, is slow. And, according to the Natural Sciences of Phoenix, there is a link between memory recall and musical tempo. For example, most classical music has a tempo of 60 beats per minute. This tempo activates the right hemisphere of the brain, while the material being studied activates the left hemisphere of the brain. With both hemispheres activated, the brain can process information more efficiently.

Another key thing to keep in mind when listening to music and studying is that you should always listen to music you know rather than music you don’t. If you listen to music that’s new, you will find yourself listening closely to the song, rather than focusing on your work. That’s why I had to stop listening to Pandora while doing work. Pandora is great to listen to when I’m on Facebook or hanging out with friends. But, when writing a paper, I simply put on my iPod shuffle and I’m all set.

So if you choose to listen to music while studying, follow these tips:

1. Listening to music is beneficial for studying but detrimental for memorizing information.

2. Music with no lyrics is better than music with lyrics.

3. Music that does not repeat itself is best (classical music).

4. Music with a slow tempo is preferable (classical music).

5. Choose music you’re familiar with, rather than new music.

If you follow these steps, you will find that you no longer have to battle with yourself about whether you should listen to music while cramming for a test.

So when you’re rushing down those steps to the Dungeon for an all-night study session, before you flip on Kanye, maybe give Beethoven a listen instead.