Will music help me study?
If I listen to music, can I concentrate better?
I get asked these questions from time to time.
More often, I am told by students that it does help them but that is because they want music during our tutoring session. Strangely, when I offer the kind of music that might actually be helpful, they are not so keen!
In my opinion, music rarely helps you study or concentrate – unless you are studying music.
I say “my opinion” because the studies are all over the place on this topic. I am speaking from my twenty-five years of tutoring and my own experience.
For most students, music tends to be a distraction, often another reason to reduce focus. I’m not saying that they do this intentionally; but, just as with so-called multi-tasking, they don’t recognize their attention reduction. While it is true that music makes us feel better, that’s not the same thing as improving performance.
Before I dig a deeper hole for myself, let me point out that I love music. I like most genres and I enjoy both old and new music. When I am listening to music that I love, I do not want to be doing anything but listening so that I can fully absorb all the tones and emotions elicited by the music or singer. In other words, I want to concentrate on the music!
The only serious activity I will do occasionally while listening to music is fiction writing. The emotions do help sometimes in this regard. Even then it is rare and temporary. Once I need to get down to the details, the music goes off.
I believe that listening to music while studying – that is reading over a text, taking notes, or reviewing notes– can be useful in certain situations and with some restrictions. (When listening to a lecture or presentation, those earbuds need to be removed.)
First of all, the music should be at a very low level, background music only. Also, the music should be without lyrics, and most studies do agree with this. You don’t (or shouldn’t) want to be singing along while trying to focus on science.
When there are other more distracting noises in the area in which you are trying to study, music can alleviate some of those distractions. Quiet, instrumental music playing at a reasonable level can moderate the peaks and valleys of other noise disturbance in some situations.
I do use a fan at times for this same purpose. Also, there are many cheap white noise machines that you can use. People often use them to get to sleep, but they are extremely useful for concentration or study if they drown out other disturbing sounds such as traffic or people talking in the next room.
There are ambient music collections that will play for hours as well. I haven’t used them, but they should work well if you cannot find or abide by silence.
At any rate, you should assess how you are doing if you try using music to help you. Be honest and adjust as required.
My advice is to find a quiet space to study, turn off devices not needed, and zero in only on your material.
Also, when not studying, don’t forget to take some time, sit still, close your eyes, and just listen to music. You will be amazed at how much more you get from listening in this way.
In fact, it might be the best thing to do for five or ten minutes before a study session with the promise of another bout of music after your silent study session. It will prime you to concentrate which you can do in silence and reward you again when you have succeeded!
This week's video: