Year 11 and 12 exams are fast approaching. Teenagers across Australia are holing themselves away for their final slog of study and revision. Heads down and headphones on. What's their study soundtrack? Pop? Classical? Ambient whale sounds?
There's a whole industry geared towards 'brain music'. Spotify, iTunes, YouTube and mozarteffect.com (more on that one later) all tout 'revision soundtracks' and 'concentration music' to stream or download. Their relaxing strings, 'alpha waves' or binaural beats promise students increased focus, relaxation and brain power.
Dare to question whether listening to music might ... ahem ... be a distraction to your teenage child's study, however, and you're likely to be shot down by cries of outrage and incredulity. "But it helps me concentrate!' they insist, "It calms me down", "It helps me study for longer".
Music is a major part of a teenager's life. It's deeply connected to their language, emotions and developing identity. Neurologists have confirmed that the music we relate to in adolescence has a stronger grip on our emotions and memory than music we enjoy at any other period of our lives.
And music has never been more accessible or portable. Today we stream music from our phones or watches to discreet earbuds or wireless, noise-cancelling headphones. Shopping malls, gyms, offices - libraries even - are full of people going about their day-to-day cocooned in their private audio worlds.
But when it comes to tasks requiring concentration, memory and processing skills, is listening to music beneficial? Or should we be reaching for the off switch?
The case for music
Study can be isolating, boring and repetitive. Listening to music can improve a person's mood, provide 'company' and make the tedium more tolerable. Our brains release the feel-good neurochemical dopamine when we listen to music, which makes us happier and more relaxed. Stressed-out students may find music calms them down and relieves their anxiety.
And then there's the oft-quoted 'Mozart effect', i.e. "classical music makes you smarter"
This theory is based on 1993 research by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky in which participants listened to 10 minutes of Mozart sonatas or other relaxing music or silence. Those who listened to Mozart performed better in a spatial reasoning test immediately afterwards.
However, this was quite an abstract mental task, involving working out what objects would look like when rotated. The results were short-lived (they lasted 10-15 minutes after listening to the music) and other studies have been unable to replicate the results.
Music is certainly stimulating and can keep a person mentally alert. There is much evidence that music training improves brain function and structure ... but listening to music while trying to concentrate on something else is another matter entirely.
The sound of silence
While music is a great motivator for routine and repetitive tasks, listening to music can never be a completely passive activity. No matter how 'background' the music may be and how little we notice it, the brain is still processing sound signals.
Almost all research in this area has shown that problem solving and memory recall tasks are performed better in silence than with any kind of background noise.
Random background noises, however, prove even worse. Studies have shown that sounds like vacuuming, sneezing, roadworks and children yelling outside have a more detrimental effect on concentration than listening to music. If you need to focus in a noisy environment, playing gentle music to mask the distracting background racket may well be beneficial. Or use those noise-cancelling earphones to create a silent space for study.
Is some music more conducive to study than others?
Clearly thrash metal played at full volume is going to be more distracting than gentle string concertos. But any music with lyrics, up-tempo beats or a catchy hook is likely to disrupt concentration. If you find yourself tapping your toe or humming along to a song while studying, you have chosen the wrong music! If you're dancing and singing the chorus into your hairbrush - you've definitely chosen the wrong track!
When it comes to unobtrusive background music, 'bland' would be the key word. Think gentle, accoustic, light strings, movie soundtracks, ambient water sounds - familiar, regular music with no surprises or break-out rhythm sections.
Research by Dr Nick Pernham of Cardiff University in 2010 suggests that students might fare better listening to music they don't even like, instead of their favourite artists; research participants were asked to recall eight items, in order, while listening to music they either liked or disliked or to no music at all. Performance in the disliked-music condition was significantly better than in the liked-music environment ... but all participants had greater recall when the background music was removed entirely.
Various studies indicate that some people are better at studying with background noise than others.
Extroverts and multi-taskers juggle music and study the most efficiently, while anxious fidgeters benefit most from calming, relaxing music.
Music is extremely emotive and associative. When we listen to a piece of music, we remember the emotions we experienced the last time we heard it. We recall information better in environments similar to those in which we learnt them. So, if the Ed Sheeran track you listened to while revising is playing in the exam room, well - bingo! However, this is unlikely. Exam rooms are quiet. Get used to it!
Trying to memorise information while listening to music may not be a great idea. But students can use the distracting properties of music to test their recall once they think they know their stuff. This is a trick used by actors trying to remember lines. The theory is that it's easy enough to recall information in ideal situations but if something throws your concentration off - eg nerves, a cough, a dog barking outside - your mind might suddenly draw a blank. Once you think you know your Japanese vocabulary, your English literature quotes or your mathematical formulae, try recalling them with noisy, distracting music blaring out in the background. Way more difficult! If you succeed in that environment, it should be a doddle in the peace of the exam room.
Tips for students
- Try to get used to working in silence, in quiet environments - these are the conditions in which you will be doing your exams.
- Use music to wind down after or between periods of study, rather than during.
- If you must listen to music, make a study play list of non-intrusive background tracks. These should be relaxing, familiar - boring even. No lyrics or up-tempo beat. Think movie scores, acoustic or ambient music, light classical. Play at a low volume.
- Try to study for as long as possible without listening to music and only put it on when you feel you can't cope without it any longer!
- Turn music off when you are focusing on the most complicated part of your studies or if you find you are struggling, tapping a toe or day-dreaming.
- If household noises interfere with your concentration, use noise-cancelling headphones to create a 'silent space' in which to study, or mask with gentle background music.