“What about music? Can my kid really concentrate on homework with those earbuds on?”
When I run parent workshops on study habits, this is always one of the first questions during Q&A — perhaps indicative of some parent-child friction around this topic!
So does music help us focus or does it distract us from learning? It depends.
- It depends on the type of music.
- It depends on what task you are doing.
- It depends on other distractions in the environment.
- It depends on the individual student.
Ultimately, we want to turn a question like this over to our children to figure out as they work on developing study habits. But since knowledge is power, here are four insights you can share with tweens and teens in your life:
1) Multitasking is a Myth
Our brains are not wired for multi-tasking. If two tasks both require attention, our brain will toggle back and forth between them like a ping pong ball.
That doesn’t mean we can’t do two things at the same time. Most of us are fully capable of walking and talking — but that’s because walking is an automatic process. We don’t have to think about it. But if we suddenly encounter a patch of ice or slippery rocks, the conversation will slow down as we focus on not falling.
So yes, you can listen to music while writing up a lab report — particularly when the music functions like white noise. But if the music begins to distract your attention, it will take you longer to complete your report because your brain will be bouncing back and forth.
2) Every Brain Works A Little Differently
General advice is just that. In her book Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying Barbara Oakley encourages students to take basic principles and then become “learning scientists” — willing to explore their own mind.
Here’s what she has to say about music:
“Observing your learning as if you are a scientist will allow you to see what effect music and other influences have on you. The only guidance that research provides about music is this. It seems that [you] can be more easily distracted by loud music and by music with words in it.”Barbara Oakley
You might discover that sometimes music is very helpful and other times it’s distracting — depending on what you are studying, the time of day, or even your mood.
For example, outlining a research paper is a highly complex task — so listening to an album that has you spontaneously breaking out in song will erode your concentration.
On the flip side, making a set of vocabulary flashcards or reorganizing your binder may not require your full attention, so singing along to a favorite album may help you stay energized during an otherwise repetitive task.
3) Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
If you like to mix music and schoolwork, spend some time figuring out what types of songs work best. Here’s a simple experiment you can try individually or with friends:
Take a sheet of math problems. While you work, play different types of music for exactly three minutes each: music with and without words, music at different volumes, instrumental jazz and classical, and so-called “brain wave” music. Finally, complete another three minutes in silence.
At the end of each segment, note how many problems you finished and how you felt. Were you more relaxed? More agitated? More energized? Was music a distraction you had to tune out? Did it affect your speed or accuracy?
Once you find music that boosts your focus, create a study playlist. Or multiple lists for different subjects and tasks. Or give yourself permission to work in silence.
“The bottom line,” writes Oakley, “is that if you want to listen to music when you are studying it may be okay. But be careful. You will need to try this out for yourself and see what works for you. Be honest with yourself.”
4) Music Is a Stress Reliever
While music may or may not be helpful for studying, it is definitely a wonderful study tool in this way: music supports emotional regulation. Music, quite literally, can help us feel good. According to research, music can lower our anxiety, physical pain, and blood pressure — and increase joy and relaxation.
So if you are one of those people who studies better in a quiet space, you may still find it helpful to throw on a favorite song before a test to calm you down, before a presentation to pump you up, or after a study session relax and celebrate.