"Should I listen to music when I'm studying?"
That’s one of the first questions middle school students asked me back in September. Since then, I have given several parent presentations on learning and the brain, and this question has come up in every Q&A.
All of which tells me there are some active parent-child negotiations going on around homework and music!
So does music help us focus or does it distract us from learning? The short answer is this: It depends.
- It depends on the type of music.
- It depends on what you are studying.
- It depends on other distractions in the environment.
- It depends on the student.
As any Montrose middle school students can tell you, “Our brains don’t multitask.” Instead, we toggle our attention back and forth between competing demands.
That doesn’t mean we can’t do two things at the same time. Most of us are fully capable of walking and talking at the same time -- but that’s because walking is an automatic process, not something that requires the attention of our prefrontal cortex. We can engage in a conversation while we drive a familiar route . . . until we hit an unexpected detour and have to focus full attention on where we are going.
So anything that occupies our attention pulls our attention from something else.
For example, outlining an essay requires multiple executive functioning skills -- planning, organizing, recalling, synthesizing. If you are suddenly distracted by a new song, you are pulled out of the state of deep concentration and it will take time to toggle back into it.
On the flip side, making stack of vocabulary flashcards may not require one’s full attention, so singing along to a favorite album may help keep a student energized during an otherwise repetitive task.
The trick is to be honest with yourself about when music is helpful -- e.g. when it serves as white noise to block out noisy siblings -- and when it is distracting. Barbara Oakley, author of Learning How to Learn (the text we use in class), encourages students to become “learning scientists.”
“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 your attentional octopus can be more easily distracted by loud music and by music with words in it.”
Today in our Habits of Mind Class, three eighth graders took on Oakley’s challenge and conducted an awesome musical experiment.
They distributed three passages from the text to their classmates. While we silently read the first passage, they pumped up the volume to the song “Macarena.” For the second passage, they played some Mozart. And for the third, they asked us to read in silence.
The students’ responses? Most found it difficult to read and listen to “Macarena” -- they noticed that they were using some of their mental energy to tune out the music. Most found it easier to read to Mozart -- unless they really didn’t like the piece, in which case it also proved distracting. And nearly everyone agreed that they easily finished the passage in a quiet classroom.
As we continued the conversation, most of the girls shared that they regularly listen to music while doing homework -- and they had some candid insights that tell me they are already becoming “learning scientists.”
Here’s what they had to say:
Several students said that listening to favorite songs on repeat works for them because they become so used to the songs that it serves as enjoyable white noise. Some have even created studying playlists for this purpose.
Many students report they do NOT listen to music while reading or writing -- especially music with lyrics. It is just too distracting.
One girl shared that the classical music she listens to helps her stay calm and focused when she encounters frustrating challenges in her homework.
Another shared that when she's starts to get tired, a peppy song helps her stay alert.
“Classical music makes me sleepy,” said one student, “so I listen to instrumental versions of my favorite pop songs.”
Yet another student recommended listening to video game soundtracks -- which are strategically designed to keep players focused on the game (now there’s a cool study hack!).
- And some said they generally work best in quiet environments.
“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.”