So with 2021 finally arriving like the storm after the calm of a somewhat pandemic stained Christmas and New Year some people will be starting to think about deadlines, exams and coursework (if they haven’t been cancelled).
So, what this means is revision and study; the art of devoting hours of intense focus to something that doesn’t always capture your interest. I have looked for any way to make these periods of my life more tolerable whether that would be undertaking colourful or ‘enjoyable’ (insert Friends style finger quotation marks) revision techniques or devoting my life to the gods of a meticulously planned revision timetable complete with breaks of forced fun to try and ease the pain. One thing that always divided my opinion was music. I’d convince myself that I needed my music to make the time more bearable and encourage me to revise, and while it did make revision more enjoyable the real question is did it help?
As far as I’m concerned this isn’t a simple yes or no answer (now wouldn’t that be a boring read) but really depends on multiple factors from the music itself to the victim of the intense study.
So most people will be familiar with the concentration curve idea which suggests that we can focus intensely for 20 minutes at a time, the conclusion of this is that stressed out students shouldn’t tie themselves to their desks all day but will actually be far more productive when working in short stints and taking regular breaks, which also helps to avoid any mental exhaustion, stress or anxiety related difficulties. I found when studying that the concentration curve was no more apparent than when I chose to accompany my study with some music. For 15-20 minutes I would barely notice what music was going on in the background, my concentration would be coated in an armour impenetrable from all distractions and I would be at my absolute most productive. However, come minute 21 the story is very different. My armour is suddenly compromised and I find that I am singing along to the choruses of songs as they come on and indulging in my own personal live show, losing all focus and productivity. This isn’t the fault of the music but more evidence of the concentration curve although I find that in these situations having the music there is almost tempting fate. I would find myself becoming more and more distracted as the minutes pass and ultimately the music would be enough to force me out of my focus. Whilst we probably should be breaking off for a cup of tea after 20 minutes anyway it seems like putting music on is just risky and in those days where you are maybe struggling to focus anyway can be the final nail in the coffin for any productivity you were planning to squeeze from within. I think the best way to utilise music in a positive way is if you are having a day where it really feels like your focus and productivity is strong you could maybe set yourself up with 15-20 minute playlists that will be a pleasant backdrop for that studious sweet spot and will also regulate your time and efforts, meaning when the music stops you know it is time for a brief pause in your work.
So what about the actual music we listen to?
I think some music is definitely much more damaging to our concentration. Whilst the idea of studying along to our favourite albums sounds great it usually isn’t beneficial as it can be far more tempting to peel away from our boring work to engage fully with the music. The reality is that most people studying really don’t want to be there already and having some music that you love in the background is just far too tempting most of the time, and before you know it you’ve nailed the first 4 songs of the album word for word but haven’t actually done any studying. Another issue is lyric heavy music; sometimes it’s just too inviting to sing along. If you’ve got some absolute classics in the background it’s only natural that you’re going to want to engage; testing your vocals against the very best from the comfort of your desk, but this isn’t really helpful for your work. It’s far too easy to get caught up in what you’re listening to and lyrics just give you something extra to concentrate on that isn’t your work. The reality of it is that your brain is going to have a much harder time taking in what you’re reading or studying whilst also taking in what you’re listening too and if you’re someone who already struggles to keep focus it’s probably best to switch to something with fewer lyrics.
Bad news thrash metal fans, it’s not just lyric heavy music that can have a negative impact. Music that sounds louder or more frantic or simply with a higher bpm can also have damaging effects to our studying. In what is already usually a stressful time we really need to stay calm and relaxed in order to maximise the results of study, this is why, as many people find, stressful cramming is not effective at all. This is something that we need to consider with the music we listen to. If you’re revising along to something that drives along at a ridiculous speed it can cause our stress and anxiety levels to rise which is really something we don’t need. In order to remain relaxed and get the best results from our study the best music to listen to is something that is much slower and calm which helps to keep us chilled out and ready to learn.
So, is music a bad thing for our study? Well, no, when utilised correctly it can actually be a great stimulant for our brain that helps us to maximise our focus. The key is using the music to it’s most helpful form. This ultimately means that whilst it is tempting to put on our favourite tunes it’s really not the best idea. Studies have revealed the best music for studying is something classical, most famously Mozart. This music doesn’t have lyrics that we can get too caught up in and is nice and relaxing; furthermore its ever changing motifs and melodies help to keep the brain stimulated without taking over. Further to this, utilise your music to regulate your study by making playlists that last about 20 minutes and not only accompany perfectly that strong focused period but also let us know when to take short breaks. I know that the thought of putting on music you don’t particularly enjoy may feel like it takes away from the whole point of putting the music on in the first place but in a stressful and high pressure study environment some calming, classical music can be the perfect mix; giving us something to engage with but not distracting us enough that we lose productivity.