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?
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.
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.
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.
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.