Study, Stress and Music

Is background music beneficial or harmful during study? Given that about 75% of students listen to music whilst they do their homework, we ought to find out.

It is natural to enjoy learning. We are born curious and eager to gain new knowledge to make sense of the world we live in and gain an increased understanding of our self. This new and successful learning results in self-growth and self-esteem.

Human beings seek self-esteem and happiness more than anything else (Aristotle)

The model of a happy, self-motivated learner can be disrupted by stress and negative emotions. The little emotions are the captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it. (Vincent Van Gogh)

Stress occurs when there is a perception that a given challenge is greater than our skills. Stress can be good or bad, depending on how we deal with it. Good stress causes a narrowing of attention, bad stress causes a focus on negative outcomes. Bad stress can interfere with brain circuitry making learning more difficult. Physiological changes resulting from stress include increases in pulse rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Severe stress can cause headaches, tears and ulcers. In summary, stress can negatively affect learning. When I ask students if they have been stressed recently a majority of hands rise.

Music is an art form which deals with the representation of emotion through the medium of sound. It can have a physical effect on us because it is closely linked with emotion, perhaps even more so than the abstract nature of words. The number one reason people listen to music is to moderate their emotional state. In a very real sense, music connects us with our inner selves.

Numerous studies leave us in no doubt that music can affect our mood state and stress levels. In fact, a great deal of present research involves the use of music in medical situations to assist recovery rates and induce a desired physiology (usually a lowering) of heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. The use of music as an element in medical intervention is an example of creative connection between subject areas. I explore this topic more in my staff PD units on trans-disciplinary learning and creativity.

Great innovation and new ideas emerge from trans-disciplinary connections (Kozumi)

Does music help or interfere with studying? Firstly, it depends what the task is. The more difficult the cognitive challenge, the more likely background music will disrupt the learning process. For less challenging learning tasks, music can greatly assist in providing external stimulation and a positive learning arousal state. Secondly, it depends on the characteristics of the music which we will come to in a moment; and thirdly, it depends on personality type. Extroverts enjoy and often require more external stimulation than introverts, and are likely to handle background noise better than introverts.

What are the music characteristics that aid or disrupt study?

Tempo

The recommended tempo for background music is in the range 70 -110 beats per minute, slightly faster than the heartbeat at rest. Music at fast tempi exerts a greater cognitive load (demands more attention) because our brain is processing more musical events per second. Fast music also raises the heartbeat, which is why gymnasiums use certain types of music with their fitness programs. Very slow music lowers the heartbeat, creating a state that might be too relaxed for study purposes.

VolumeĀ 

Music which is very loud or forceful exerts a greater cognitive load which makes concentration more difficult. Music which is too soft can also be irritating if we find we are straining to listen. Music with sudden dynamic (volume level) changes is also unsuitable. Volume level is an individual preference, but needs to be moderately low and consistent.

Tonality

For this topic, tonality refers to whether music is in a major or minor key. Music written in a major key generally has a happy character, whilst minor, sad. One does not need to be familiar with this music jargon as even very young children are adept at picking the tonality of music. For example, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is in a major key, whilst a funeral march would be in a minor key. Choosing music written in a major key and at an appropriate tempo is best for study purposes, although many people find that slightly quicker minor key music also works. This is because of relationships between musical characteristics – particularly between tempo and tonality, creating different arousal thresholds.

Lyrics

Many young people have a listening repertoire of only songs; that is, music with words. Lyrics are the most distracting aspect of background musical listening, because they compete with the same brain regions that process language. More particularly, studies have found that the most distracting background music per se is fast and familiar vocal music known by, chosen and liked by the listener.

So it’s not about genre of music, be it classical, jazz, pop or rock, but the inherent musical characteristics which affect our mood and learning readiness. These characteristics include tempo (the speed of the beat), volume, tonality (major or minor) and whether or not the music is instrumental or has words. There are indeed more pertinent musical characteristics including texture, melodic range and rhythmic complexity, but this beyond the scope of a typical student presentation. There is still much we don’t know about the effects of music listening on behaviour, and fMRI scanning is contributing much to our understanding.

The Powers That Be – Is The Music Industry Pimping The Music?

The music industry made up of several record labels is often given a “bad rap”. No, they do not force our children to listen to the negative music that they sell – remember we all have freedom of choice. However, what they are guilty of is flooding the market with the same types of music and turning a deaf ear to any music that does not fit into their profit margin. So, what you don’t hear – you won’t want to buy. The music industry has always done this, but even more so now that their profits are decreasing due to the popularity of online websites who offer a large library of music not only from artists we are familiar with, but new artists who have not been able to break through the industry road blocks. Music labels are notorious for keeping music that does not promote their interest off the radio stations by making sure that the music that DOES promote their interest is played in rotation – what kind of deals do they make? Is it payola? Not sure – that is for a legal mind to determine. The fact remains that only certain music selections are on the air – and we keep listening and buying the same song, different artist – just like the music labels want us to.

The Pimp Factor

Recording labels have even been known to contract with an artist, so that they can own the rights to their music – and then refuse to promote it – why? To control what you and I listen to on the .radio and keep the type of music that they want to promote in the forefront. In any other arena this action would be considered as “pimping”. This may seem like a harsh term – but what is a Pimp? According to the website EduQna “What Does Pimping My Ride Mean?”, the explanation fits pretty well “‘Pimp my Ride” is a phrase meaning the modification of (something), usually, impractical but very flashy way (think pimp-like). (making) modifications, etc. (something being) altered to achieve the appearance (something more media than real)”. I really love EduQna’s Rough translation: “Please sir, if you would kindly pull the cash from my pockets to make my (possession) appeal to my need for compensation.” If the word fits, recording labels should wear it. Many artists have complained that they feel “pimped out” due to the types of contracts they innocently sign just to break into the industry – the signing may be innocent, but the wording of the contract is by design – to control the music and the artist who creates it.

The music industry is really shooting itself in the foot and hemorrhaging slowly by not joining with online music sites whereby both can profit. However, in its effort to control the industry as it has in the past, they are missing out on a large opportunity to sell a larger variety of music to their demographic target – 13 to 18 year old listeners. But those listeners are growing up and due to their computer and internet abilities, they are “hacking” into an online market of music that the mainstream music industry can’t touch – Online Streaming Music.

Gently Down the (Music) Stream

In 1999, an 18-year-old college dropout named Shawn Fanning changed the music exchange forever with his file-sharing program called Napster. His idea (not the 60 hours of creating the computer code it took to create it) was simple: a computer program that allowed computer users to share and swap files, specifically music, through a centralized file server. His response to the complaints of the difficulty to finding and downloading music over the Net was to stay awake 60 straight hours writing the source code for a program that combined a music-search function with a file-sharing system and, to facilitate communication, instant messaging. Napster was born. But was Shawn patted on the back for his ingenuity? Are you kidding? The Recording Industry Association of America filed suit against Napster charging them with tributary copyright infringement, which means Napster was accused not of violating copyright itself but of contributing to and facilitating other people’s infringement. However, Napster argued with some success that because the actual files are never in Napster’s possession, but transferred from user to user, that Napster is not acting illegally. The issue in P2P applications (Peer to Peer) is that if Napster is guilty of copyright infringement, then the consumers of Napster are guilty too. Likewise, if the consumers are not guilty, then how can Napster be held responsible?

So Shawn and his tiny company of 50 employees in Redwood City, California was up against media empires like Universal, Sony and BMG. But what the music industry failed to see is that whatever the outcome of the Napster lawsuit, Napster had opened a proverbial window of possibility on the Internet and more companies would and did spring up over time. After a protracted legal battle the site would eventually be shut down. Years later, after being bought by Roxio, it would reemerge as a popular digital music service. Since that time, there are thousands of sites worldwide, that have grown from and perfected what Shawn started moved through the controversy, and now provide quality music to its online customers through a process called “streaming”. “Streaming” is a generic term in the computer world. It basically means that the data being transferred can be used immediately, without having to download the song in it’s entirety before it can be used. Audio (music) and video (that is a topic of another article) can be streamed successfully, and with a high quality result.

One of the most popular providers of streaming audio and video, of course is Apple Computers. With the introduction and popularity explosion of the I-Pod, which was created for downloading, transferring and playing music and now video, Apple created I-Tunes, a service where you can purchase individual songs or full albums, from an extensive library – from any genre you can think of – where customers can purchase tracks online for a nominal fee. This is due to the fact that I-Tunes and other streaming music companies have created partnerships through licensing agreements with some artists and some music labels. And now with the I-Phone gaining popularity, there is no end to what “streams” of media can be had by anyone with an media player.

Though technological progress has been made in this area, megalomania is still pervasive. There is still a large population of record labels and companies who have chosen not to partner with digital/streaming music companies. Why? Control – the music companies want and have control over the majority of music and artists of the music that you listen to.