Musical Notes in Cognition

Listening to music can either be a distraction or a tool for concentration when studying. The contrast between these two responses to music is due to factors such as individual preferences and environmental conditions.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cover Image
By Stacey Chen

According to The New York Times, teenagers listen to an average of approximately 2.5 hours of music per day. Listening to music is very common while completing tasks like exercising, completing household chores, or passing time on the train. It is also common for students to listen to music while doing their schoolwork. With recent advancements in technology allowing for the convenience of music at our fingertips, the concept of listening to music while studying is new and unique to the students of this generation. Thus, the cognitive effects of music are not entirely known. To evaluate whether music is the right study habit for you, it can be useful to compile the available research on this topic to come up with a conclusion about what works best for you.

In a study conducted by Johnson and Wales University on teenagers’ reasons for listening to music, the efficacy of music while studying was explored. The study reported conflicting responses where some students reported that listening to music helped them concentrate on their schoolwork, while others viewed it as a distraction. The differences in these responses can be explained by the many underlying factors regarding individual preferences and the type of task they are trying to complete.

Furthermore, the genre and type of music can have different consequences on people’s cognitive performance. Research shows that upbeat music with 50 to 80 beats per minute (bpm) increases arousal, which can help boost creativity. In particular, music that makes someone happy helps boost creative cognition through the release of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter in memory and motivation. On the other hand, a study by the University of Tennessee proved that there are disadvantages of upbeat music in cognition. The researchers compared the effect of students' memories when listening to rap, which was around 100 bpm to classical music, which was slower at around 40 bpm. Participants in the classical group scored significantly better on the memory task than those in the rap group, suggesting that the rap genre may be more of a distracting form of music when studying compared to classical music.

This leads to the phenomenon called the Mozart effect, which describes the increase in cognitive abilities of individuals who listen to music by Mozart. Research published by the University of Tennessee showed that listening to classical music helps enhance concentration and listening skills as participants in that group received higher scores in concentration and memory.

The type of task you are completing is also important to consider when deciding whether listening to music is the best option. In the same study by Johnson and Wales, students decided it was best to not listen to music when completing a math or reading assignment. Furthermore, in light of upbeat music’s effect on performance, studies have shown that this increases divergent thinking but not convergent thinking. In other words, listening to music is most effective when completing work for art or freewriting, work that involves creative thinking and thinking up original ideas. On the other hand, completing tasks such as arithmetic and other work that involves following a certain set of established rules and logical reasoning are better done in silence.

A significant reason why some students may listen to music is that it helps them boost their confidence in themselves. In this manner, they feel that they have the ability to fulfill their goal successfully, and their self-efficacy increases. This confidence in themselves then positively affects their behavior and performance.

Overall, many of the research articles stress the idea of achieving the right amount of arousal to acquire better study habits. The right amount of arousal differs from person to person. Measuring the optimal state of arousal and optimal performance can be shown in the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a phenomenon that proposes that there is an ideal level of arousal that will produce the best results. Difficult tasks would not be completed in the best manner with the presence of strong stimulation, or high levels of arousal.

As students, we acquire and polish our own study habits and experiment with different strategies to find the best ones that work for us. Looking at the science behind our behaviors and preferences can help us further refine our techniques and better understand ourselves.