Music may help the brain, but does it help work and studying?

Posted on Posted in Tips & Tricks

How does music affect your studying, work, or exercise?

When you walk into the drug store, there is music. When you’re in a restaurant, there’s music. Likewise in your car, and many other places in your life. Ever since the advent of music recording, music has become much more present in our lives at all times. Initially, vinyl records let us bring music from the symphony hall into the home, cassettes and CDs made it portable, and MP3 has made it ubiquitous. Take a walk through any library or gym, and you will see that the majority of the people have earbuds in. The question is though, is this helping or hurting? Some people claim they need music to study, others say they cannot study at all with music present. So what is the verdict? Is there a right answer?

Music is multi-tasking

Ah, everyone’s favorite word in modern day life – multi-tasking. You may be reading this right now on your phone, walking to class, listening to music, and thinking about that presentation that you have later. Our attention is pulled in many different ways every single day. Scientific studies show however, that because multi-tasking splits your attention, it slows your mental processes and thus people drop an average of 10 IQ points when they are multi-tasking.

So music is bad then?

Au contraire. Depending on the task, music may help or hinder your work. The more repetitive the task, the more effective music is at boosting performance. The more difficult and involved the task, the more difficult it becomes to do while listening to music. Music stimulates the brain more than any other human activity (in ways that we do not completely understand). Music engages both sides of the brain with melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics, etc. Keeping this in mind, let’s think of an analogy: if your brain was a computer, and you wanted to run a program that took a lot of your computer’s resources/power to run, it would slow your computer down. Then, if you try to multi-task on top of that, you’ll notice all of the other tasks have slowed as well. Too much of this, and you might risk crashing something. Not that music is going to crash your brain, but the principle remains the same! Your brain only has so many resources to use at one time, so if you focus them all on one thing, they cannot do a second too; it becomes a choice of one or the other. For repetitive tasks, music is ultimately beneficial. In this way, music is perfect for most exercise (e.g. running on the treadmill), because exercise is more physically engaging than it is mentally engaging. For more involved tasks, like taking notes while reading a book, it may be detrimental because you may be distracting your brain.

Didn’t you just say it was bad?

For highly involved tasks, yes. For repetitive tasks however, it is shown to increase productivity by simply boosting one’s mood. By listening to your favorite song, you feel happy, energized, etc. and so you become more productive. Similarly, in a noisy environment, music can help you tune out the distractions around you.

So if I’m going to listen to music, what should it be?

Again, this will vary from person to person. Some people cannot concentrate at all with music in the background, and for them silence would be best (or for any modernists, you can listen to Cage’s 4’33”). For those who need music to study, or just hate silence, here are some take-aways on how to pick your music to optimize your work efficacy:

  • Listen to music you’re familiar with. New music is surprising and can draw your attention away from what you’re doing.
  • Pick music that is happy (most likely in a major key), and music that does not have too many volume swells; drastic volume changes can be distracting.
  • Consider music without lyrics – music with lyrics engages the language portion of your brain, making it harder to do language-based activities. Some examples are:
    • Classical music: classical music is not what I would call a popular genre these days, but YouTube is loaded with playlists from composers. Each era of classical music is somewhat different too. Baroque-era music (e.g. Bach, Vivaldi, etc.) is usually very consonant, predictable (yet also intricate), and relaxing to listen to. Classical-era music (e.g. Beethoven, Mozart, etc.) will likely be variable, offering everything from calming strings to smashing pianos. Romantic-era music (e.g. Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn, etc.) will be very passionate and varied as well (and in my opinion, the era that has the best music overall). Modern-era music (e.g. Shostakovich, Satie, etc.) should be handled with caution, because some pieces may be nice and calming, whereas others will have screeching strings meant specifically to agitate the audience.
    • Electronic music: This genre is a little less defined, but there are sub-genres like chillout, downtempo, ambient house, and others which will provide subtle soothing music in a more contemporary way. A personal favorite of mine is a band named Ratatat.
    • Video game music: This one I do not have much experience on, but some people swear by it. The reason for this is because the music is not meant to be distracting; it’s supposed to be just background music.
    • And the rest: The list could go on. Jazz, soundtracks, there are many different kinds of music that fit the above criteria.
    • Finally, if none of these work, consider white noise. It’s less distracting than music, and if your brain finds silence off-putting, it may help bridge that gap.

So what?

Well at the end of the day, the choice lies in the hands of the individual. Your choices are many, and everyone has ways to better focus on their work. Again, familiar music, music without words, and without volume swells is preferable for the next time you are doing any sort of other mentally engaging activity while listening to music.



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