Is it OK to listen to music while studying?

Mr Richard Dobrenov | Deputy Principal & Head of Senior School

The question of whether music helps or hinders one’s ability to study has long been debated in homes, at schools, and now at universities.  A recent study conducted by the University of Wollongong determined that whilst music may put the listener in a better mood, thus increasing concentration; the genre of the music has a major impact on the level of distraction.  The term ‘Mozart Effect’ coined in the early 1990s emerged from a study which found that listening to complex classical music like Mozart improved spatial awareness; however, further research has shown that these improvements are conclusively linked to mood enhancement through music.  Improved mood has been linked to increased effort and perseverance with more challenging tasks.

An important feature of increased capacity whilst listening to music is the style of music being listened to. The process of studying relies on using our working memory which means that we hold and manipulate several bits of information in our head at once. Research shows that when people listen to music with lyrics, there is a decrease in reading comprehension.  It also appears that introverted people are more distracted whilst listening to music than those who are extroverts, perhaps because people who are introverted tend to be more easily overstimulated.

In an attempt to figure out the relative effect of the competing factors of mood and distraction, Australian researcher Bill Thompson tested a complicated comprehension task on participants with varying levels of classical music both soft and loud, fast and slow. The experiment revealed that a minor decrease in performance occurred with classical music which was both fast and loud but it wasn’t significant. What the research did show was that music does enhance mood but it shouldn’t be too fast or too loud and should be without words.

What does seem to be the best way to improve your IQ, is to actually learn to play a musical instrument.  Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist at Western University in London, Ontario claims that a year’s worth of piano lessons and regular practise can increase your IQ by as much as three points.  So, unfortunately, just listening to Mozart or any other music will not have the desired effect of increasing your IQ.  By learning and repeatedly practising music, we strengthen the association of motor actions with specific sound and visual patterns, while receiving continuous multisensory feedback.  Brain plasticity is increased and there are definite cognitive improvements.  Alas, Music teachers have been saying this for decades; perhaps a lesson for us all.