It’s the week that your midterm paper is due, and you still have to read a chapter from the textbook and find at least one scholarly article to use in your paper. You get comfortable with a laptop, something to drink, put on a playlist of your current favorite songs and get to work.
The first thing that I want to make clear is that while I do think without a doubt that music helps me study, every person is different when it comes to how they approach studying. Some people prefer to study in complete silence, some need the sounds of the outdoors and some need music. What works for one person may not work for someone else, but I think that music is a very flexible tool when it comes to studying that can be helpful to a wide variety of people. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have at least one genre of music that they like to listen to, and a single genre is all that you need to get started.
Playing relaxing music while studying can create a very calming state of mind that can ease your nerves, especially if you’re dealing with anxiety for an upcoming exam. According to a Foundation Education article from 2018 titled “Does Music Help Students Study?”, music with a high bpm or intensified nature can often have the opposite effect of relaxing music. However, before you go putting on your favorite track, it’s important to be aware of the different effects that different types of music can have on your ability to study, as some potentially do more harm than good.
Music can also serve as a distraction to your studying. I find that this is especially the case when I listen to songs that have many lyrics, as having to listen to words while simultaneously reading notes makes it far more difficult to retain what I am reading than if I were to read without the music. Most of the time, I can’t listen to Drake rap about his feelings while I am also trying to read Shakespeare’s tragedies. The two just don’t mix well. There are some occasions where I can just tune out the lyrics of a song and focus on what I am reading, but it’s inefficient at best and not advisable if you’re reading for serious retention.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say that you should start playing Beethoven when you study. You’re more than welcome to of course, but it’s ultimately just what works best for you. If you can read and understand Hegel’s “Lectures on Aesthetics” while listening to some heavy metal, then more power to you. Personally, I think that any genre of music can improve a person’s ability to study. It’s all about finding your own niche. But if I had to make a suggestion, I would say to pick a type of music that does a good job of keeping you alert and focused, as opposed to one that makes you so relaxed that you zone out, or even fall asleep.
Music radio services like Spotify and Pandora are a good place to start for finding this type of music, but if you want to take it a step further, you should make a compilation or playlist of your favorite tracks to listen to while studying. North Central University published an article back in 2017 called “Can music help you study and focus?” in which Dr. Masha Godkin, a professor in the Department of Marriage and Family Sciences, said “Music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, and the activation of both hemispheres can maximize learning and improve memory.” This article suggests classical music, spa music and ambient EDM as good genres to use for studying.
Background music should be treated as just that: background music. It acts as a support system to enhance your ability to study, but it’s not meant to be the focal point of what you’re doing. Trust me, when one of your favorite songs comes on, it is very hard to resist the urge to crank up the volume and jam out and sing along, but you’re better off saving that for your commute to class. The music should be just loud enough so that you can hear it and recognize that it is there, but that is all. I like to treat it the same way I treat music that plays in restaurants: the music is always present, but it’s quiet enough that you can effortlessly have a conversation with the person sitting across from you.
If you want a good way to test whether or not your music is too loud, read a paragraph from whatever you’re studying and then immediately try to recall all of the important information that was present in that paragraph. If you can’t remember what you read, then that is generally a sign that the music is too loud, and it’s negatively impacting your reading comprehension.
Music can be very beneficial to improving a person’s ability to focus and study effectively, but getting to have this positive effect requires some knowledge of how certain types of music can impact the brain. As I said previously, it is ultimately specific to the individual. Don’t be surprised if the music that you listen to on a regular basis turns out to not be the music that best improves your ability to study. It’s natural to listen to certain kinds of music when we are sad or having a bad day, just as it’s natural for us to listen to certain kinds of music when we are walking through the city streets. The same applies to studying.