Sitting in a room by yourself and reading a dusty old textbook is far from enjoyable for most people, but “studying” in one form or another, is something that most of us have to do in life. This isn’t limited to our school years, particularly with the knowledge economy of the modern world. Learning new techniques, studying articles and publications, and ongoing education courses mean that studying is something that all ages deal with.
The Science of Sound and Studying
Studying for anything requires a certain amount of concentration, particularly if the material that you’re studying requires reading and comprehension. Now, sound isn’t inherently disruptive, and the benefits of background music will be explored shortly, but when it comes to music with lyrics, diligent students tend to run into more problems.
Lyrics are language-based, just like the words you’re reading on the page, making it more difficult to focus on your study material, simply because you are essentially multi-tasking. Your ears are hearing the lyrics at the same time as your eyes are reading the words, and your brain is attempting to process both of those language inputs at the same time.
Studies have shown that this happens with any form of changing state speech (stream of different words), not just lyrics. It could be someone counting up and down from 1-10, trying to hold a conversation with you, or the blare of a newscaster on television. Memory retention and comprehension is diminished across the board with changing state speech in the background of traditional language-based studying. On the other hand, mathematics studying isn’t nearly as negatively impacted by lyrics, because you are no longer demanding two tasks in the language processing part of your brain.
As can be expected, complete silence was the best setting for concentration and memory retention, but steady state speech (repeating the same word over and over) also doesn’t have much of a negative impact. Repetition of the same word is similar to “white noise”, and becomes akin to silence, just like studying with the ongoing rumble of traffic or the wind blowing outside.
A number of other studies have shown that purely instrumental music is actually beneficial to the act of studying. Classical music, in particular, has received a lot of positive attention in this area, both as a precursor tool before beginning a task (studying), and as background music during the performance of the task itself.
A study conducted at Stanford nearly a decade ago investigated the effects of classical music on brain activity, and showed that it actually improves our powers of attention. The brain begins to predict and anticipate the fluctuation of notes, naturally paying attention to the movement of sound based on pattern, pitch, speed and volume. This is occurring in a different part of the brain than language processing, leaving you undistracted, but one could argue that listening to classical music while studying may actually help you focus on the task at hand even more!
The Personality Variable
The reason that this question remains so interesting is that the answer is likely different for every person in small, individual ways. For example, typically high-strung people may need soothing music to calm them down and find the right mental space for studying, whereas typically relaxed or even lackadaisical individuals may need something slightly more upbeat.
Another interesting variable relates to your personality type – as either an introvert or extravert. Research has shown that introverts tend to prefer solitude and silence when they study, whereas extraverts prefer more external stimulation in their surroundings when they sit down for a study session.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personality and personal choice. What science (and most people) can agree on is the negative correlation of study success with lyric-intensive music. Beyond that, from complete silence to instrumental tunes, introvert vs. extrovert, loud, soft, or somewhere in between, it all depends on what works best for you!
- Studying For Finals? Let Classical Music Help – University of Southern California News
- The Benefits of Studying With Music – Florida National University
- 3 Reasons You Should Try Studying While Listening to Music – Colorado State University Online
- How Music Could Help You To Concentrate While Studying – Independent