Music to study by

Listening to music while studying

18 April 2016

We examine ways to improve cognitive performance through music, and the science behind the findings.

Do you prefer to study with the only noise being your own breath or dropping pins? Or do you prefer a bit of background to break up the monotony? Depending on your learning style, music can be very helpful for learning new ideas and committing them to memory.

A quiet environment can be conducive for study as distracting noises and wide variations in song structures can affect recall performance. However, sometimes we need some background stimuli to make sure we stay calm and focused on the task at hand. It can also help improve your mood, and a happy student is a working student!

So, does this mean you dig out your favourite band and sing along as you digest hard facts? On the contrary, this kind of engagement could cause you to focus more on the lyrics than learning standards.

The ‘Mozart Effect’ has been described in several studies: researchers have shown that information retention and performance can improve when listening to his music, but this has since been proven with other styles of music, provided that you enjoy it.

Classical music is an easy go-to but bear in mind that it can feature exciting crescendos and cadences that could distract from the task at hand. Ambient music, including instrumental soundtracks and ‘white noise’ such as running water and the sounds of the rainforest. The latter has also been shown to induce calm states in fretting babies.

Think back to your time in school. Did you have to learn new information in rhyme or song form? Even the alphabet was attached to ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, as music is a memory trigger. Linguists suggest listening to new songs in the language you are learning to improve recollection.

Repetition and rehearsal build and strengthen neural pathways.

Can you recall every word to a song, but can’t remember equations? The brain’s ability to learn and remember music is demonstrated in several everyday situations: there are cases of dementia patients who cannot remember their family members, but can instantly recall song lyrics or individual key progressions in a song. Repetition and rehearsal build and strengthen neural pathways.

Music is enjoyable and relaxing, so see how you can integrate it with your study routine.

During exams, you can think back to where you were, and what you were listening to when you studied a piece of information to trigger memories. The hippocampus part of the brain stores long-term information – this also happens to be the area of the brain that is stimulated while listening to music! You may discover that you have subconsciously attached ideas to certain sounds, which again increases recall.

It should also be noted that emotions are closely tied into this process – if you feel moved by a piece of music, the brain takes note and allocates any associated memories as important.

You can design your own study playlist for each subject, but there are free resources available on sites such as Youtube to save you precious study time.

(Some Youtube selections will include adverts – use these as mini breaks to stretch or take an eye rest)

Choose your study music wisely: if you’re not sure then listen to your favourite music before you start studying as this can also produce beneficial cognitive effects.

On a final note, it might be tempting to drown out all other noises with maximum volume, but you should be able to hear your own internal monologue while studying and analysing materials!

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  • CA Student blog

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