“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…