Beware What You Listen To: The Detrimental Effects of Many Types of Music on Your Studying
These days you would be hard-pressed to walk through the libary without seeing someone with a pair of headphones on. Everyone has their artists and playlists that they love to listen to while studying. But as more research on music comes out in the field of cognitive psychology, it has become clear that many students are hindering their focus and detracting from the effectiveness of their studying just through their choice of music. However, not all music is harmful, and audio can help stimulate brain activity and adjust our mood to the optimal levels for focusing and learning. Furthermore, some types of music have been shown to actually boost cognitive function. An easy but effective step to studying smarter therefore, is to be knowledgeable about these findings and choose your study music wisely.
Some music has been found to detract from cognitive performance, while other types may boost mental capacities.
Forcing Your Brain Into Multitasking
A common function of music is to remove distractions while reading. But the same parts of the brain, Broca's and Wernicke’s areas, are used for processing both written and spoken language. Therefore, when your brain is taking in lyrics as well as the reading, it is not fully dedicated to comprehending and analyzing the reading. For this reason, Stanford professor of psychology Clifford Nass states that “Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you’re writing or reading”.*
Similarly, music that is very fast paced, or overly loud, forces your brain into what is essentially multitasking, as it’s capacities are pulled from the work to process the distraction in the environment. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that both reading speed and reading comprehension are compromised by music of this nature.** It is therefore best to avoid these elements in your study music, as well as lyrics.
Your brain diverts resources away from comprehending and learning to process musical lyrics or loud and distracting beats. Some choices of music therefore cut the benefits to your studying.
So What Should You Listen To?
However, it is certainly not all music that is harmful to your studying. Music can adjust your mood and “agitate” you to the right level of alertness for studying. The Yerkes-Dodson Law dictates that, up to a point, performance in tasks increases as mental and physical arousal does.*** This law applies to studying, learning, and focusing as well. Music can play a significant role in changing arousal levels, whether it is to bring them up or down.**** So as long as music is lyricless and at reasonable volume, it can actually be a powerful tool to help you focus.
In fact, research suggests that some music actually aids your brain in studying. Researchers at the Sapienza University of Rome found that when listening to Mozart, participants showed an increase in brainwave activity linked to memory, focus, and problem solving. When the participants listened to other music, there were no such effects to be observed. Mozart’s music has long been associated with brain development due to the classic Baby Mozart tapes that parents play for infants (Georgia’s governor even announced in 1998 that the state budget would include funds to provide every child in the state with a classical CD). It seems that the cognitive benefits to Mozart apply not just to infants, and can stimulate brain activity to help you study and learn better. So while it is a good step to stop studying to music that detracts from your brain’s abilities, you can even take it even further and find music like that of Mozart that may even complement the brain’s processes.
Yet despite this research on music many students still turn to music with lyrics and fast catchy rhythms for studying, either out of a lack of information about their music’s effects or perhaps out of the notion that such music is simply more enjoyable to study to. Well, even if you do not feel like listening to Mozart every day, there are great artists for every taste whose music will help you study better. For example, check out Explosions in the Sky, Ludovico Einaudi, Hans Zimmer, and other recommendations here on our music page. You can even stream playlists and songs from the artists directly on our site. Furthermore, all of these and more are readily available on most streaming sites like Spotify or Amazon Music (tip: Both services are half price for college students, and Amazon Music even comes with perks like free two day shipping on Amazon).
Changing your selection of study music to avoid detracting from the effectiveness of your studying is an easy step, but can have tangible benefits. An important part of studying smarter is ensuring your surroundings are optimal for efficient work and learning, and music plays a large role in many students’ environments.
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