Everyone has at some point has tried to study in a place (your dorm, a lounge, maybe even the library) where there’s a lot of noise and realized, “I’m not at home in my quiet bedroom anymore.” Maybe somebody’s playing music with a beat that makes the walls vibrate, the people in the hallway are chatting, or the people next to you are watching TV loudly. So you put in your headphones and listen to your own music, trying to drown it all out while you crank out some work. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself doing this a lot and the nagging question of “is this helping or hurting me” comes to mind, so I looked into it. I looked at a few different things: First, does the genre and your preferences matter? Second, does volume matter? Third, does music affect you differently when you’re doing different types of homework?
From the research I did into various studies, the most important conclusion is this: it’s (almost) always better to study in silence. In this randomized and repeated study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers found that lyrical music and unattended speech (example: people talking in regular conversation) had the worst effect on memory and cognition, followed by instrumental music. Steady noise (like from white noise or pink noise simulator) and silence had essentially equal effects on performance and seem to be the best option for studying involving memory and basic levels of computation (such as reading, counting, calculating, and reasoning). This study also showed there’s little difference between steady ambient noise and silence when it comes to memory. Though there wasn’t explanation for why steady noise and silence were essentially equal environments, I have a hypothesis: both steady noise and silence are consistent and allow your brain to focus without diverting attention to the sounds around you. Where even classical music changes pitch and tempo, and takes some of your concentration, steady noise and silence don’t. Here’s that in list form:
- Best to Worst Conditions to Study In
- Silence and steady noise
- Instrumental music
- Unattended Speech and Lyrical music
I checked out too if music preference has anything to do with academic concentration. It might make sense that if I really love listening to a certain band, I might have a harder time concentrating on my work if their music is playing. It also might make sense to say that listening to my favorite band gets me pumped and ready to roll when it comes to my work and music I dislike might distract me more (like a bad smell). This is where that whole “human intuition is lousy” concept comes in. As it turns out, many studies including this one in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal found that there was no difference in “serial recall performance” between liked and disliked music conditions…and again, these were “significantly poorer than the quiet and steady-state speech conditions.” Again, I found the study to be properly randomized with multiple experiments to replicate the findings even within the study. SO! Silence/steady noise is still the best option, and music preference doesn’t seem to affect memory recall and cognition skills.
But there’s just one more thing that I wanted to check out. All of these studies dealt with memory and computation skills, but not all homework is memory and computation. In fact, for most of us non-science majors, a lot of our homework deals with critical thinking and creative thought processes (whether it’s English Literature, Visual Arts, or Marketing). So I looked at another study on the effects of music on creative cognition. First, if you’re concerned, I think the study did a decent job of quantifying creativity. In all of the experiments, participants were asked to do a creative task (example: generate new ideas for a mattress), there was an independent panel of judges randomly selected to evaluate the creativity of their work, and the scores were then averaged for an overall “creativity score.” Though creativity is extremely subjective and hard to evaluate, I found this study to be valid. The study concluded that participants were the most creative when there was a moderate level of ambient noise and that low and high levels of ambient noise were equally worse. Why though? Basically, when there’s the noise, that noise disrupts cognitive processes and this is called processing disfluency. But when the level of noise is just right, a certain amount of distraction leads to creative thought. It’s basically a Goldilocks Theory: too little noise and your brain isn’t distracted enough to be creative, too much noise and even creative processing becomes too difficult.
But a moderate amount of noise or music (around 70 decibels) in effect shakes your brain out of its normal thinking patterns enough that you can think in abstract creative terms.
So what’s the take home message? Try to find a consistent and quiet environment to work in. If you can’t, maybe try listening to white or pink noise to “block out” the random distractions. If you’re doing “creative” homework, consider listening to medium volume music or ambient noise in order to create that “processing disfluency” that I mentioned earlier. In the end, you have to create a musical/noise environment in which you’re focusing the most on your work rather than the environment itself.
About Abigail Kennedy
Hi all, I'm Abby Kennedy and I'm a junior at Penn State University's Schreyer Honors College. I've found passions in my double majors in English and Secondary English Education and in my minors in History and Latin American Studies. In spare time, I love singing in my a cappella group and working. No, I can't believe I'm halfway done. There's still so much to learn.
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Sep 25 2016by Destiny Abercrumbie
5 Reasons Why You Should Listen to Music While Doing HomeworkBy Destiny Abercrumbie - Sep 25 2016
If you are like me, then when you have to study for a test or do any type of homework, doing it in complete silence just feels weird. You need something to happen in the background, a little noise that can help you stay focused and not let your mind wander off. The perfect solution is to listen to music while doing homework because it helps block off the rest of the world's distractions. To some people, it may be a bad thing, but here's why it's a good thing.
1. Music helps you study.
There have been studies done by universities such as The University of Wales that show that listening to music while studying can improve memory, attention and your ability to do mental math, as well as lessen depression and anxiety.
Researchers also did a test to see how background music affects students' test scores. The students who took a test with music did have a lower average score than those who didn’t have music, but the researchers noted that there was a lot of variation in the scores. This could tell us that the effect of music can vary a lot from person to person. Researchers believe that more research needs to be done on how the factors of tempo, genre or whether students are used to having music on make any difference.
2. Music helps you focus.
According to a study done at Johns Hopkins University, playing background music for creativity and reflection activities such as journaling, writing, problem-solving, goal-setting, project work or brainstorming is a great thing. There are also many uses for music including active learning. You can take a sound break or move around activities to increase productivity, energize students during daily energy lulls, provide a stimulating sound break to increase attention, make exercise more fun and encourage movement activities. To read more on this study, click here.
3. 'The Mozart Effect' is a real thing.
The Mozart Effect is book by Don Campbell that has the world's research on all the beneficial effects of certain type of music. This book includes research on how music makes us smarter. Scientists at Stanford University in California have recently revealed a molecular basis for the Mozart Effect, but not other music. Dr. Rauscher and her colleague H. Li, a geneticist, have discovered that rats, like humans, perform better on learning and memory tests after listening to a specific Mozart sonata.Some of the many benefits of the Mozart Effect include improvement in test scores, cut learning times, reduced errors, improved creativity and clarity, faster body healing, integration of both sides of the brain for more efficient learning and raised IQ scores by nine points, according to research done at University of California, Irvine.
4. Music makes us smarter.
In 1996, the College Entrance Exam Board Serviceconducted a study on all students taking their SAT exams. Students who either sang or played a musical instrument scored an average of 51 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and an average of 39 points higher on math. According to the research outlined in the book, musical pieces such as those of Mozart can relieve stress, improve communication and increase efficiency. Music starts up our brain and makes us feel more energetic and a link has been made between music and learning.
According to Don Campbell, the author of the Mozart Effect, "In the workplace, music raises performance levels and productivity by reducing stress and tension, masking irritating sounds and contributing to a sense of privacy."
5. Music improves the brain and helps heal the body.
Music also stimulates different regions of the brain responsible for memory, motor control, timing and language. At McGill University in Montreal, neuroscientist Anne Blood, said, "You can activate different parts of the brain, depending on what music you listen to. So music can stimulate parts of the brain that are underactive in neurological diseases or a variety of emotional disorders. Over time, we could retrain the brain in these disorders."
Harvard University Medical School neurobiologist, Mark Jude Tramo, says that "Undeniably, there is a biology of music. There is no question that there is specialization within the human brain for the processing of music. Music is biologically part of human life, just as music is aesthetically part of human life."
In conclusion, there are many benefits to listening to music and it is not a bad thing to do in order to stay focused. So if you ever need a solution to stay focused or concentrate on the task at hand, slip on a pair of headphones and play some music.
Lead Image Credit: Steinar La Engeland via Unsplash