This article appears in Make the Grade 2018.
Whether they’re studying for a world history final or concentrating on programming homework for coding class, students are often plugged in and listening to music on headphones. Enter a library or homework space and it seems studying with music is the norm rather than the exception.
But should your child study with music? It depends.
The effect of background sound on task performance has been studied in depth for the past 40 years “in a phenomenon known as the irrelevant sound effect,” said Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, U.K.
“The Mozart effect” theory is often dumbed down to “listening to music will make you smarter,” but studies do show that music can improve memory and attention, pump you up or slow you down, among other things. One study from the Stanford School of Medicine showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory.
Helpful types of music
Sound affects performance in a variety of ways, Perham said.
If a task requires some mental arithmetic, such as recalling a list of items in order, background sound that contains acoustical variation will impair this.
“Most sounds do this. Someone speaking is an example of acoustically varying sound,” Perham said.
On the other hand, a task that requires information to be processed semantically, such as reading comprehension, is impaired by music with lyrics.
“Nonspeech sounds don’t impair reading comprehension compared to quiet, but speech does. Same for lyrical and nonlyrical music,” Perham said.
Many people listen to music to help them concentrate, but it really depends on the kind of music that’s playing and what effect you want that music to have, said Benjamin Hardy, a writer at Medium.com and doctoral candidate at Clemson University.
For many, listening to music while doing another task — including academics — has a positive effect on performance, creativity, motivation and concentration, said Hardy, author of “Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success.”
To banish the distraction of music while studying, choose songs that are highly repetitive, ambient sounds or classical music, said Hardy, who often writes while listening to one song on repeat.
“It allows you to dissolve into the noise, stops your brain from wandering and allows you to focus on the task at hand,” he said.
Keep it positive
All students are different and have different study skills and strategies. Whether music works is up to the individual, said Dr. Joseph Cardillo, author of “Body Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Energies for Your Best Life.”
Music permeates every part of the brain and can exert its influence over the brain’s control systems, said Cardillo, an expert in attention training and creative thinking.
“This means that music can influence your memory, speed of recall, perceptions, emotions, organization, neurochemistry and behavior — all of which can extend positive influence over studies,” he said.
Paired with study correctly, music can “block out extraneous noise and allow the student to focus on the task at hand,” said Nancy Gretzinger, a retired educator in Ohio and Arizona with 40-plus years of experience.
It all depends, though.
“Certain music would certainly distract from learning. Music the student is familiar with may cause the student to sing along versus concentrating on work. Some individuals may be distracted by any noise on the headphone and prefer silence. Some students may react claustrophobically to headphones,” Gretzinger said.