Listening to music while studying or doing homework is a very common habit among students.. In libraries, many choose not to listen to this fragile and artificial silence that surrounds tables and shelves by isolating themselves from the outside wearing headphones and a pleasant melody.
The same is true in some offices, although in this context isolating yourself from others is more problematic if you are working in a team or in a large office with open cubicles. Whether or not there is isolation, however, what these people have in common is that they see music as a tool that can improve concentration, Productivity and execution of tasks in general.
But … is it true? Does music really help us focus better on what we’re doing, whether it’s memorizing text, studying complex topics, or writing projects?
Music in repetitive tasks
Scientific studies have been carried out on this subject for many decades; among other things because if music can be used to improve the performance of students or workers, this information can be very useful for organizations able to finance this type of study.
So, for example, the results of a research were published in 1972 was designed to try to better understand the relationship between listening to melodies and changes in productivity. Through a series of observations, there was an increase in the performance of workers when listening to music from loudspeakers.
However, this research was the daughter of its time, and was only used to study a very specific and representative working context of the time: that of factories. Workforce tasks were repetitive, predictable and boring, And the music acted as a stimulant of mental activity. As the work was more rewarding and enjoyable, the productivity results were also better.
Other research that took place later served to reinforce the idea that music improves the performance of routine and monotonous tasks. This was good news, as much of the workforce was engaged in assembling items on assembly lines, but … What about the most complex and creative jobs, Those which cannot be carried out by machines? What about studying complex academic programs, which cannot be memorized literally but need to be understood and mentally worked on?
When the task gets tough, silence is better
It seems that when the work at hand forces us to really focus on what we are doing, the presence of the music is a burden that we must avoid.
For example, research published in Psychological Reports found that when a series of volunteers had to count down to a piece of music of their choice, whoever did it while the chosen song was sounding did it much worse than those who could not choose and simply accomplished the task without listening to music.
Much other research points in the same direction: the most catchy tunes or the closest to the person devastating effects on performance when studying or performing moderately complex mental operations, Especially if the music contains lyrics in a language you understand.
In other words, even though music is used for studying, it may just be because you like the music, not because it improves memorization and learning outcomes. You hear these tunes despite the effect it has on performance, not because of how effective they are in this setting.
Why is it not good to listen to music while studying?
The answer lies in two concepts: that of multitasking and that of attentional concentration. Multitasking is the ability to perform more than one task in parallel and is closely related to working memory. This type of memory is responsible for keeping in mind the elements with which we work in real time. What is happening is that this type of RAM in our brains is very limited, and it is believed that it can only be used to manipulate between 4 and 7 elements at a time.
Mindful concentration is how the brain directs mental processes toward solving some problems and not others. When we focus on something, we are using a large part of our nervous system to fix it. for this, you have to pay the price for neglecting other functions.
This is why, for example, if we are walking down the street thinking about something, it is common to find ourselves deviating to continue walking on one of the routes that we follow regularly: going to work, going to school. ‘bus stop, etc.
But the problem with attentional focus isn’t just that it can only cover some processes and not others. Also, keep in mind that we don’t always have full control over it and it can deviate from what we should be doing very easily.
Music, in particular, is one of the great baits before which attention tends to succumb; it is extremely easy for the attentional concentration to detach itself from the study or performance of complex mental operations and to move on to recreate itself in the appreciation of the melody and the verses it contains.
So for these more difficult tasks, it is best not to disrupt our attentional focus by presenting distracting temptation in the form of upbeat music and understandable lyrics. But then … why in monotonous tasks this effect is not noticed?
The answer is that a lot of the processes we go through when doing routine work are handled by a part of our brain that fulfills its goals without requiring attention to intervene.
Specifically, the engine memory, Mediated by brain structures called basal ganglia, is responsible for most of these automated action sequences. Just look at how people who have spent years installing parts on an assembly line work – they can work so fast that what they are doing seems very difficult, but they don’t even focus too much on doing it.
The opposite happens with studies. If some academic careers are difficult, it is precisely because pursuing them constantly involves dealing with unforeseen problems, which cannot be minimized by a simple melody.
Conclusion: it depends on the type of content to study
The effect of music on our ability to study it varies depending on the complexity of the content we need to learn.
For the more mechanical and monotonous tasks, which are those in which we can always be guided by the same memorization system (for example, associate a name with each river on a map), music can make us progress further, even that this will not happen in all cases and some personal psychological characteristics also influence, such as the ease with which each one manages their attentional concentration.
However, if music helps study in these cases it is not because we momentarily “dop” our intelligence or whatever, but just because it makes this activity more enjoyable and we stay there longer, without looking for distractions outside.
However, the device with the most complicated tasks, in almost all cases listening to music is counterproductive and hinders the action of studying. This is so because for such activities we need to take full control of our attentional focus, So that distractions do not interfere with our ability to “mentally operate” on the content that we need to assimilate. Although we don’t notice it, we hear a melody