Should you listen to music while studying?
Do you have to study for a test? Before cracking open the books, it is important to create the proper environment. But does that mean turning off your MP3 player?
This brain receives, stores, organizes and recovers information as memories. Studying provides a way for the brain to receive information. Memory occurs in three forms: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory.
Sensory memory holds an exact copy of information for a few seconds. Selective attention filters this information to regulate what is transferred to short-term memory and what is discarded. Short-term memory, also called working memory, retains a select amount of the information for a slightly longer period. The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the limbic system, transfers information from short-term to long-term memory. This information is organized and stored for easy recovery.
Inside the brain
Scientists conducted a series of studies in the 1990s examining the influence of music on memory recall. The research supported the positive effects of background music when studying. The research also suggested that music, especially classical music, heightened arousal and mood, as it reduced blood pressure, heartbeat and stress.
The research studies pointed to the positive effect of classical and baroque compositions. This musical style was popular between the 16th and 19th centuries. The music of this period commonly maintains a tempo of 60 beats per minute.
The scientists drew a link between memory recall to musical tempo. A tempo of 60 beats per minute 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.
In addition, the scientists determined that the brain subconsciously focuses on patterns. Classical and baroque music follows a specific structure that repeats once throughout the composition. The research indicated that music with too many repeated sections become distracting and is not beneficial for memory recall.
Despite all of the benefits, picking the wrong music can lead to distraction and impair studying. So what do you do? Before you turn off the tunes:
- Try listening to music without lyrics. Lyrics can be distracting, whereas instrumental music heightens concentration.
- Try listening to slow- or medium-paced music.
- Try to avoid music with loud drumbeats, like rock or heavy metal.
- Try to avoid music that is new. You may find yourself paying closer attention to music that is not familiar.
- Try playing music quietly in the background.
- Try to continue one style of studying, such as memorization or math, when listening to a particular type of music.
Do not wait until the night before the big test to determine if music is a good study aid. Conduct a few experiments and decide what type of music is most productive for you. Try reading a passage of text while different types of music — like classical, new age, techno, pop or instrumental — play in the background. Determine for yourself the music that is most effective during study sessions. You may also find studying in silence is your cup of tea.
Balch, W.R. and Lewis, B.S. (1996). Music-dependent memory: The roles of tempo change and mood mediation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22(6):1354-1363.
Halpern, A.R., and Müllensiefen, D. (2008). Effects of timbre and tempo change on memory for music. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(9):1371-1378.
Wallace, W.T., Siddiqua, N. and Harun-ar-Rashid, A.K.M. (1994). Memory for music: Effects of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(6):1471–1485. doi:10.1088/0954-3899/20/9/016.