Is it good to listen to music and revise?

21 April 2015

Question

I was watching my daughter doing some revision whilst she was listening to music at the same time, via headphones.
It occurred to me that maybe she shouldn't do both as maybe the brain would be concentrating more on the music, which she likes, than the subject she was revising, which she doesn't like. Is there any scientific back up for this thought?

Answer

We put Nick's question to Naked Scientist Ginny Smith...

Ginny - Well, the studies are quite mixed on this and it depends a lot of what kind of music it is, what kind of person his daughter is, and what she's studying. So, there's a lot of evidence that listening to some music.

Chris - So, what you're saying, if she studies music. It's quite important to be able to listen to music.

Ginny - Well, yes for a start. There's something called the "Mozart effect" where the original finding was that listening to some Mozart before you did a task boosted performance on that task. Its now been debunked. It's not just Mozart. It works with pop music, rock music, pretty much anything. Basically, listening to some music gets you hyped up. It puts you in the right mindset to do lots of different tasks and can help with concentration, memory, all sorts of things. But that's having it on before you start studying. When they've tested out people studying, doing memory tests with music on, most of the time, it does cause detrimental effects to their performance. Sometimes they even found that it's worse when you like the music. But as I say, it does vary from music to music. So, music with lyrics we think is a lot worse than music without lyrics because your brain is kind of getting distracted by the words, trying to follow along with them. And therefore, not concentrating on what you're reading.

Kat - I have to say, I've just been working on writing a book and I've had this playlist that's kind of very minimalist electronic music. It's basically just repetitive bleeps and beats, just quietly going on and I found that's really helped me focus. It sort of shut out all the nonsense.

Ginny - I listen to Sigur Rós because they sing in a language that I don't understand. So again, I don't get distracted by the words. But the other thing is, music can make boring things more fun. So, if you're doing a boring repetitive task.

Kat - Like running.

Ginny - .or data entry or something like that, then music actually can improve your performance because you don't get so bored. And if it's something that you're an expert at already then it can be beneficial. So surgeons often listen to music while performing operations.

Chris - Best email I ever got to the Naked Scientists was this guy in Australia. He wrote in and said, "Dear Naked Scientists, I love listening to your programme on a podcast when I'm in the laboratory dissecting the prostate glands out of Drosophila." But it's sort of what you're saying, isn't it? If there's something which is a repetitive motor task that you're really very good at, very practiced at, but you just have to go through the nuts and bolts of it every time, then actually, having something to occupy that part of your mind means that you're less likely to then get distracted and do something wrong.

Ginny - I think the best everyday example is driving. If you remember back to when you were first learning to change gears, the idea of having music on would've just been way too much of concentrating so hard on what you're doing. But once you've been driving for a year or so, it becomes completely natural and you can listen to music and things perfectly fine at the same time.

Kat - But of course, the only sanctioned listening should be the Naked Scientists on our podcasts.

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