Can listening to music really help us concentrate?

Is music good for studying? And if so, what type? By Clarissa Philpott

We have all heard the theory that playing Mozart to babies will make them smarter (insert that scene from the original Incredibles movie) and frankly, I have realised there may be a lot of truth in that concept. Not necessarily that listening to Mozart will help you get a 1:1 in your second year mock exams, but that listening to the right type of music might actually help you concentrate a bit better. 

According to study.com, there are both benefits and drawbacks to listening to music whilst studying. Some principal benefits include the fact that music can soothe the mind of a stressed student; background music can motivate us and help us to keep going when we are about to give up; and some students even link the music they are listening to the information that they are trying to remember. However, listening to music can also distract you. Have you ever been writing an essay or even just a sentence, and you have started writing the words of the lyric you just heard? Well this can be a big problem. If you focus too much on the music or lyrics in your ears, then you may be likely to take in less information about what you’re studying. And if you have memorised certain things to the sound of music or a particular rhythm, you may actually need to hear that music or rhythm in the exam to remember what you want to say, which of course isn’t allowed. 

There is an argument, which I have to say I agree with quite a bit, that claims video game soundtracks are the best for concentration. Whether or not this is because they have been composed specifically to fit strategic gameplay and concentration, that is certainly what they do end up encouraging. The music also helps create an immersive environment, drawing you closer to what you’re focusing on, whether that be an accurate translation of a Spanish news article or trying to beat the boss in a Nintendo Switch game (with this in mind I highly recommend ambient sounds from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for studying!) Personally, I have adapted this to suit my taste, and I find that listening to the soundtracks of my favourite films really helps with study concentration. If you have a connection with a film, whether sentimental, intellectual or otherwise, it can easily put you in a good and productive mood. 

A lot of my friends have very different tastes in music, and each one of them attempts to listen to their favourite songs whilst studying. And while some of them succeed, the majority of them fail miserably and get completely distracted by singing along to the lyrics (that is of course if they’re not sitting in the silent section of the Davison building). In my personal experience, instrumental music and background ambience really have helped me to concentrate and study more effectively. I have five different ‘Study Buddy’ playlists on Spotify, with varying degrees of instrumental music from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony in F Minor, to Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, by John Williams. I have tried listening to pop, rock and indie whilst studying, but it just does not work. 

With this in mind, the following are my personal recommendations for different types of music that really can help you concentrate while studying: 

  • Classical instrumental music (Mozart and Bach are both great, but if you want something a bit different, try listening to some 20th century composers like Shostakovich, Holst and Britten) generally good for concentration – avoid operas however, because although you may not understand what they are saying all the time, the lyrics can still be quite distracting.
  • Epic movie/TV show soundtracks (Batman Begins, Inception, anything remotely Christopher Nolan-esque, and also Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones soundtracks are always very immersive) are best for long stints of writing, you know, when you suddenly decide to pull an all nighter on the top floor of the library.
  • Video game soundtracks (Halo Collection, Assassins Creed and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) are great for intense focus with things like exam revision, memorisation and written exercise completion.
  • 20th/21st Century Piano solos (Philip Glass’ composition repertoire is good for studying – and also rainy days) are more defined as they only follow one line of music, and can easily fit into the background whilst studying. 
  • Light vocal music (and I mean REALLY light – Novo Amor and Sleeping At Last make great candidates for this) is good if you really can’t listen to purely instrumental music, as I know that is the case some people. 

At the end of the day, we all know our own preferences, and you should be able to listen to whatever music you’d like whilst you study! However, the science of music is exceedingly interesting, and it would be interesting to see how our levels of concentration varied if we decided to change up our Spotify playlists once in a while. 

References:

study.comIs it Good to Listen to Music While Studying? – by Nicky Davis
theguardian.comDoes music really help you concentrate? – by Dean Burnett