Smarter Through Music?

Do you have trouble focusing when you are studying? If you find yourself distracted or have trouble solving complex problems, we may have just the solution for you. Studies show that listening to music may help you to study or do homework. This phenomenon is generally known as the “Mozart Effect” and for a while it was thought that it’s only certain kinds of music that help your brain to focus. More recent studies suggest that if you like the music you are listening to when you study you can see improvement.

Basically, these studies show that listening to Mozart improves spatial-temporal reasoning. Spatial-temporal reasoning helps you to find abstract solutions to complex problems. A study by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky (1993) found that playing Mozart to test subjects helped them score higher on the spatial-temporal portion of an IQ test. In another experiment, three and four-year old students who were given piano lessons for 8 months scored 34% higher on their IQ tests than students who were not given piano lessons. So popular has the theory become that the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller petitioned the government to provide a fund for purchasing classical CDs for all Georgian children.

Not into Mozart? There are other options. In general, baroque classical music, like Vivaldi or Teleman, has much the same effect as Mozart. Try to find music that has 60 beats per second. To a lesser degree ambient music including genres such as ambient house, ambient trance, new age, trip-hop and Nu jazz can also be used to improve leaning. The music must blend into the background; if you are singing along or focusing on the music instead of your studies, choose a different artist.

If you find music distracting, try ambient sounds such as whale songs, waterfalls, ocean waves and other natural sounds. Brian Eno’sMusic for Airports” is specifically designed to relax and calm tired travellers in airports. Eno’s background music heightens your mood and occupies those parts of your brain that may cause distractions while you are studying. You can view a nice slide show and listen to it on You Tube. Other works by Eno include helping to form the 70’s band Roxy Music, composing the Windows 95 theme, and producer/writer for pop bands like U2 and Coldplay.

There might be limitations to the benefits of music though as researchers at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, UK, looked at the ability to recall information in the presence of different sounds. They instructed 25 participants between ages 18 and 30 try to memorize, and later recall, a list of letters in order. The study authors Nick Perham and Joanne Vizard published their report in the September 2010 issue of Applied Clinical Psychology.

As reported in CNN’s The Chart BlogParticipants were tested under various listening conditions: quiet, music that they’d said they liked, music that they’d said they didn’t like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers. The study found that participants performed worst while listening to music, regardless of whether they liked that music, and to the speech of random numbers. They did the best in the quiet and while listening to the repeated “three”.’

The Perham & Vizard study does not necessarily contradict the ‘Mozart Effect’, but does suggests some limitations on the benefits of music in memorizing lists of things in order. It may still be the case that listening to music before performing a task like that helps cognitive abilities. However, it might be better to study for an exam in quiet, or listen to music beforehand. Blasting out Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga while you are studying for an exam is more likely to be a hindrance than a help.

If you don’t own any music to study by, you can stream songs for free from SomaFM, DI FM, and MusOpen. You can also install classical music apps on your phone so that you can listen to music on the go or at school.  Classical and ambient music is said to calm the nerves and elevate the mood, so you may want to consider listening to it even when you aren’t studying. Listening to classical music for ten minutes before a test or exam will help to improve your spatial-temporal abilities and calm you down.

The benefits of music are also explored in a recent piece by Lifehacker and NPR recently carried a report on how singing is used to help individuals like Gabrielle Giffords with brain damage regain their speech. Other reports on the benefit of music to stroke victims suggest there is a therapeutic benefit music plays in the recovery of individuals and some have dubbed it the Kenny Rogers Effect.

So the bottom line seems to be that music in the right dose, at the right time and to your pleasure can be a benefit. In the future we’ll look into the benefit of learning to read and play music on academic ability and learning.




Filed under Learning Resources

2 responses to “Smarter Through Music?

  1. JT

    Interesting…. most research contradicts the summaries in this article. Even studies of the “Mozart Effect” and learning improvements in spatial related tests seem to be unfounded. Sure, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but just look up “listening to music while studying” and you’ll find 10 articles to every 1 that indicate that music is distracting to almost all forms of studying.

    • Thanks for the comment. Good points. Like anything with life there is never a clear answer, thus we concluded in the blog by saying
      “So the bottom line seems to be that music in the right dose, at the right time and to your pleasure can be a benefit”. To some there may never be a point where this is even true.

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