Studying with music: Focus essential or enjoyable distraction?

From the rise of the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ in the early 1990s, to the release of noise cancelling headphones to increase focus, and the low-fi study beats that dominate many a student Spotify playlist, the debate as to whether listening to music is really conducive to study is not terra incognita.

Before 2020 brought the world to a standstill and saw us fashioning our bedrooms into study spaces, I was firmly of the belief that I couldn’t work unless there was absolute silence and that music whilst studying was little more than a distraction I could ill-afford as deadlines loomed closer. Granted, I was still slightly envious of those who could listen to music they love AND work at the same time. Since trying to study at home, however, in and amongst my parents’ work calls, my brother’s lectures (for which he refuses to wear headphones) and the dogs barking every time someone walks past the house, I have certainly seen the benefit of using music as a study tool to help block out the background noise. I still find it helpful to create a distinction between the music I would listen to for pleasure (hello, Taylor Swift) and the music I listen to for facilitating focus, as otherwise the atmosphere created is more likely to produce an impromptu dance break than a serious study session, but the change in working environment brought about in the last year has certainly forced me to rethink my stance on music as a study tool.

Even though I’ve relaxed my total silence policy, I still find it difficult to listen to music with lyrics, lest I risk accidentally typing the lyrics into an essay or taking notes on Champagne Problems instead of Cicero. I, like many others of late, have noticed that my incessant scrolling through TikTok and my general anxiety about the state of the world has ravaged my attention span, and as such, listening to music with lyrics or any of the music I would usually listen to, causes me to stare out of the window, daydream or otherwise procrastinate. Therefore, my search was primarily for something to help relax me and allow me to focus on the task in hand.  Initially, when looking for music to study to, I automatically sought out some Classical Music playlists, falling foul of the common misconception that Classical Music is the only worthwhile study music and that I would instantly become laser focussed on my work and vastly more intelligent as a result. This was not the case. For some reason – possibly my tinny Bluetooth headphones from Amazon – rather than feeling relaxed and inspired, my teeth were set on edge and I felt jarred, as if the music were demanding my attention rather than simply blocking out the background noise.

Having established that I was in need of ‘low maintenance’ music, I trawled YouTube, Apple Music, and Spotify for something that would sufficiently isolate me from the outside world whilst still allowing me to concentrate. After a period of trial and error, I found three solutions that I’ve been regularly using for a few months now. The first is a ten-hour YouTube video that plays white noise on a loop, which does sound terrible, I’ll admit, but it is enough to mask any background noise whilst not competing for my attention, leaving me in a nice state of noise neutrality. If you’re looking for actual music, however, I find that a ‘Low-Fi Study Beats’ playlist – they’re on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and everywhere else on the internet – is ideal for providing a relaxed backing track to your study session without demanding any brainpower, an already precious commodity as we trudge through summative season. My final recommendation is to find instrumental versions of songs you already know and enjoy. I often seek out the band 2Cellos, as they produce cello instrumental versions of popular music; by listening to instrumental versions of music I already enjoy, I find that it is easier to create a comfortable and familiar environment, leaving me sufficiently relaxed to concentrate on my work, without the distraction of the lyrics disrupting my flow.

Image: J Dimas on Flickr. 

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