Is the Mozart Effect real? Does Classical music actually help you concentrate? Is there real science behind the kind of music you should listen to while studying?
Based on an array of experiments conducted over the last several decades, we know that listening to music while working or studying can improve focus and productivity. Odds are that if you are reading this article, you are listening to music in the background. But not all “study playlists” are created equal. Here, we will look at some of the most important dontss when selecting “brain food” you consume with your ears. Please also read our companion article on getting the most out of your study music, Ideas in Rhythm: Creating the Perfect Playlist to Unleash the Power of Your Mind and Boost Your Productivity.
How Much Concentration Do You Need? Immersive vs. Non-Immersive Tasks
If you were painting a house and found yourself working on a large area of siding, you wouldn’t want to focus intently of every detail of every brush stroke. That would drive you nuts. The reasonable method would be to strike a balance between a basic level of concentration and some pleasant drifting of the mind. Tasks that are best approached with such a balance are called non-immersive, and the rule for choosing your soundtrack for non-immersive tasks is pretty much, “whatever gets you through the night.”
Immersive tasks, however, require your full concentration. Because musical sounds can either enhance or disrupt your ability to focus, assembling the best possible playlist to accompany your work on immersive tasks is a matter worthy of serious consideration.
Examples of Non-Immersive Tasks
- working out
- assembling familiar components (for example, items you work with daily at your job)
- yard work
Examples of Immersive Tasks
- studying for a class
- solving problems in math or science
- detail work with wood, pottery, or other materials
Is There Actual Science Behind the Concentration Music?
Anyone can share their opinions, but there has been a wealth of science demonstrating the effects of music on immersive tasks.
A study published by The Journal of American Medical Association in 1994 showed that surgeons worked with increased accuracy and efficiency with background music. The experiment proved true regardless of who selected the music, the surgeons with music performed better than those without.
In 1999, the journal of Neuroscience and Behavioral Physiology published a study that measured the speed at which individuals could identify numbers and found that the use of classical or rock music had a positive effect on the the recognition of visual images.
The journal of Psychology of Music also published a study in 2005 which showed that software developers were more efficient, had better moods, and produced higher quality work while listening to music.
Despite contrary notions, there is overwhelming evidence which supports the idea that music can make your concentration more productive and efficient. While most employees gladly put on their headphones and hit the play button, using music to enhance your productivity isn’t as simple as that. Here are the major pitfalls you might be guilty of, when choosing their study playlist.
The Top 10 Mistakes You Can Make When Choosing Music for Work or Studying
- Choosing the music simply because you like it. Don’t forget that there is a difference between entertainment and concentration. First and foremost, study music needs to be functional: it has to help you complete your tasks. A 2011 Study suggested that concentration is best enhanced by music you neither strongly like nor strongly dislike.
- Choosing music with lyrics. Words inevitably evoke thoughts. Therefore, listening to music with lyrics means committing yourself to multitasking but divided concentration is not productive. All of the best study music is therefore instrumental. Playlists and radio stations with lyrics must be avoided like a plague. They will drain your mental energy, leaving you exhausted and distracted.
- Listening to the hits. Top 40 charts are, for the most part, dominated by songs intended to get you “pumped up” with a boost of adrenaline. That boost can be a great help if you need to rouse yourself out of your post-lunch coma or power through your reps at the gym, but it won’t do much for your ability to map out the genetics of blood-type inheritance. Psychologist Joanne Cantor points out that “Typical popular music interferes with complex tasks and reading comprehension.”
- Choosing music that is heavy, loud, or aggressive. Common sense here: you don’t go to a heavy metal concert or club dance party to do your history homework. Study music should be the kind of music that rewards attention without demanding it. Think of music while studying as programmatic and functional rather than entertaining. There was even a study demonstrating that listening to rock music decreased concentration.
- Listening to “spa” or “relaxation” music. While a driving, aggressive rhythm is a major disruption to mental activity, a total lack of rhythm can empty your mind of any thoughts. That is precisely the purpose of relaxation music — to promote emptiness of the mind. One study actually demonstrated that up-tempo music increased concentration. The study compared an uptempo Mozart piece with a slow moving Albinoni composition and found an enhanced performance on a variety of cognitive tests when listening to the Mozart piece.
- Assembling an incoherent playlist. Imagine yourself slowly walking through a quiet forest. You round a bend in the path, and there are 700 clowns juggling and honking horns. Pretty jarring, right? When your goal is sustained concentration, you don’t want to radically adjust your mood every time your playlist advances to the next selection. This is not to say that your playlist should be monotonous. But its variety, like the individual pieces of music, should be subtle, not nerve-rattling. Let music help you stay in the ‘focused-space’ you need, not be distracted out of it every time you have to adjust the volume or skip a track.
- Using poor quality equipment. Most cheap headphones don’t provide the comfort, clarity, and protection from outside noises that you need to immerse yourself fully in your task. High quality headphones are a more than worthwhile investment for anyone who plans to work to music on a regular basis. If, however, your budget doesn’t allow for such a purchase, consider downloading the wonderful audio enhancement app, Boom 2. It’s volume and equalization controls are stellar.
- Letting advertisers pay the bills for you. If you are using the free versions of Pandora, YouTube, et al., you are regularly bombarded with commercials, which are created with the specific goal of shattering your concentration into tiny, vulnerable bits of consumerism. Maintaining your concentration throughout the month is worth far more than the cost of upgrading to subscription service.
- Avoiding classical music. By “classical music” we mean in the broad sense, referring to everything from Baroque music to late 20th century compositions. This giant catalog of music abounds with pieces that fabulously support concentration and productivity, but for the uninitiated, it can also seem like a vast, foreign, intimidating territory.
- Mismatching the mood of your music to the task at hand. Imagine composing an fun blog post about how to throw a great party while listening to B. B. King sing, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’, too.” It’s equally hard to write a somber piece about the effects of Hurricane Matthew on Haiti while listening to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Choose music that expresses moods appropriate for, or complementary to, the task at hand.
An Investment That Pays Lifelong Dividends
It should be clear by now that building your ideal study music playlist is going to take some time and research. You may be wondering, “Is it really worth all that?” The answer could not be a more a resounding YES. In this era of beeping, flashing, buzzing distractions everywhere you look, developing your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time will not only make you a more successful student or a more desirable employee, but also add a richness of meaning to all of your daily experiences. A modest investment of time creating outstanding playlists of “music to think by” is surely a very small price to pay for a lifetime of rewards.