We made you a mix. It will make you smarter.
Okay, obviously, that’s a pretty lofty promise, but we’ve found tons of evidence that studying to the right kind of music can improve focus, concentration, and productivity. It can even enhance your study experience by creating an association between good work habits and emotionally stimulating music.
On top of that, music is just a generally awesome way to fill a quiet room. A pair of headphones can be a good antidote to a student lounge filled with yammering first-year students. A well-chosen album at a modest volume might be exactly what you need to drown out the sounds of your roommate, who doesn’t realize the courteous thing to do is to put that “bloop” sound on mute while incessantly mass-texting.
But there’s more to it than that. Music is more than a defense against weapons of mass distraction: according to some researchers, it may actually play a key evolutionary role in our ability to digest patterns, anticipate events, and create order out of the chaotic strands of human experience.
It’s called the Mozart Effect, according to an article from The Learning Scientists:
The Mozart Effect is a brief enhancement of spatial-temporal abilities in college students after listening to a Mozart piano sonata. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky conducted an experiment inviting students listen to Mozart’s piano sonata, relaxation music, or nothing at all (silence condition) before performing a spatial reasoning task (a subtest from the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale). The researchers found that participants’ performance on the spatial reasoning task improved after they had listened to the Mozart sonata compared to the other conditions.
This suggests two things: First, music can temporarily enhance your cognitive abilities. Second, it matters what kind of music you listen to. If you’re studying to Justin Bieber, there are at least two levels on which this is not great for your brain.
Music of the Mind
According to a study conducted at the Stanford Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Laboratory, music engages the parts of the brain that control your attention span, your ability to make predictions, and the strength of your memory retention.
According to one of the study’s co-authors, associate professor of music Jonathan Berger, “The study suggests one possible adaptive evolutionary purpose of music.” Berger elaborated that music engages the brain over a period of time and that the process of listening might be “one way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.”
For more on the cognitive impact of music consumption, consider checking out Focus@Will, which offers further discussion on the way music interacts with your neural functions along with a streaming music service designed to act on that discussion. Focus@Will describes itself as a “new music service based on human neuroscience. It helps you focus, reduce distractions, maintain your productivity and retain information when working, studying, writing and reading. The scientifically tested technology behind Focus@Will has been shown to alter brain activity toward a state that is more conducive to productivity.”
If you’re prepared to subscribe to something non-pharmaceutical that promises to alter your brain activity, this might be a good outlet for you.
Kill the DJ
Naturally, not every kind of music is ideal for working. For starters, taste is a major factor. The study mentioned above was conducted using eighteenth century classical music. If listening to classical music makes you feel like a brooding supervillain from a James Bond movie, J.S. Bach will probably do more harm than good. That is, unless you’re studying to become a brooding super-villain — in which case, here ya go!
But it’s not just about music that you find enjoyable. Something you may love when driving or jogging could be completely wrong for a night of cramming. Bob Dylan is a genius. His lyrics are thought-provoking. His imagery is evocative. His insights are revelatory. But man, is he distracting! I love Dylan as much as the next rock geek, but attempting to write an essay while listening to “Blonde On Blonde” is basically a verbal meth-binge. It gets kind of hard to tell where his words end and yours begin.
Glenn Schellenberg, a psychology professor from the University of Toronto, explains the problem here. He suggests that “The reason why it’s a mess is you have cognitive limitations. If you’re doing two things at once you don’t focus as well.”
But, says Professor Schellenberg, “We know that music changes how you feel, and often it can change how you feel in a positive way.”
It’s all about selecting the proper tunage for the proper occasion, the stuff that makes you feel exactly how you want to at exactly the right time. LCD Soundsystem on a Saturday night, Nick Drake on Sunday morning…maybe that new War On Drugs record for a Tuesday afternoon bus ride?
Whatever you’re into. I’m just saying, you have to soundtrack the moments of your life correctly. Of course, “Let Me Clear My Throat” is a stone-cold classic, but if you blast it at a coffee shop on Monday morning, everybody will hate you.
All of this is to say that your study music should make you feel studious. Select something that stimulates without distracting, that energizes without engaging, that motivates without dominating, that matches the tempo of your workflow and the mood of your moment.
A study conducted at the University of Wales found that students were equally distracted by lyric-based music that they liked and that they disliked. By contrast, students tended to be less distracted by music that was lyrically repetitive or instrumental.
Your study soundtrack should be largely comprised of sounds with minimal lyrical content. Look for instrumental music. Start with genres like jazz, classical, fusion, electronica, trip hop, and EDM. Dig into instrumental sub-genres like surf rock and hot rod tunes. I’d recommend Dick Dale for the former and Link Wray for the latter. Try a few of the 1960s bands that specialized exclusively in instrumental rock and roll, like the Ventures or Shadows. There are also all kinds of killer R&B instrumentals out there by guys like Bill Doggett and Illinos Jacquet. Then you’ve got virtuoso guitarists like John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola. I also like to mix in some cool film scores — you can’t go wrong with Ennio Morricone.
If you crave the stimulation of vocals without the distraction of lyrics, consider digging into the international scene. Every culture offers its own rich and diverse musical vocabulary. And because you probably have no idea what the words mean, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to keep your mind on your work.
And most importantly, try to mix it up. Use these elements to create a playlist that flows alongside your work, that strides gently while you concentrate and climbs in tempo while you toil, that calms your anxiety when you need to chill, and kicks you into higher gear when your energy is flagging. You need a musical companion that is always present, always on the same page as you, but never up in your face.
Back when I was in college, if you wanted a new song for free, you had to download it on a service called Napster. This was the beginning of free music content online, but it also took forever and the quality was pretty terrible. If I wanted John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, I could be waiting a week for that thing to download. Once downloaded, I might find out it was actually Kid Rock’s entire discography, intentionally mislabeled by somebody with a sick mind.
You don’t know how lucky you are. This past September, top-notch music streaming service Spotify teamed up with video streaming service Hulu to create a $5 a month bundle just for college students. If you fall into that category, do it! That’s an awesome deal. Spotify gives you an incredible amount of power when it comes to exploring music and creating study playlists.
I have nothing to gain by plugging Spotify. I just think it’s incredibly worth the money. I would have killed for something like this in college. And as online educational tools go, it doesn’t get much richer or deeper than the wealth of insight, knowledge, and inspiration within.
If you still need convincing, or you just want to borrow our playlist for your studies, that’s great too. Check out our Spotify-compiled Brain Music Mix below. It’s over six hours of instrumental music perfect for maintaining uninterrupted focus. Just don’t forget to get up and stretch every once in awhile.