Everyone has at some point has tried to study in a place (your dorm, a lounge, maybe even the library) where there’s a lot of noise and realized, “I’m not at home in my quiet bedroom anymore.” Maybe somebody’s playing music with a beat that makes the walls vibrate, the people in the hallway are chatting, or the people next to you are watching TV loudly. So you put in your headphones and listen to your own music, trying to drown it all out while you crank out some work. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself doing this a lot and the nagging question of “is this helping or hurting me” comes to mind, so I looked into it. I looked at a few different things: First, does the genre and your preferences matter? Second, does volume matter? Third, does music affect you differently when you’re doing different types of homework?
From the research I did into various studies, the most important conclusion is this: it’s (almost) always better to study in silence. In this randomized and repeated study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers found that lyrical music and unattended speech (example: people talking in regular conversation) had the worst effect on memory and cognition, followed by instrumental music. Steady noise (like from white noise or pink noise simulator) and silence had essentially equal effects on performance and seem to be the best option for studying involving memory and basic levels of computation (such as reading, counting, calculating, and reasoning). This study also showed there’s little difference between steady ambient noise and silence when it comes to memory. Though there wasn’t explanation for why steady noise and silence were essentially equal environments, I have a hypothesis: both steady noise and silence are consistent and allow your brain to focus without diverting attention to the sounds around you. Where even classical music changes pitch and tempo, and takes some of your concentration, steady noise and silence don’t. Here’s that in list form:
- Best to Worst Conditions to Study In
- Silence and steady noise
- Instrumental music
- Unattended Speech and Lyrical music
I checked out too if music preference has anything to do with academic concentration. It might make sense that if I really love listening to a certain band, I might have a harder time concentrating on my work if their music is playing. It also might make sense to say that listening to my favorite band gets me pumped and ready to roll when it comes to my work and music I dislike might distract me more (like a bad smell). This is where that whole “human intuition is lousy” concept comes in. As it turns out, many studies including this one in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal found that there was no difference in “serial recall performance” between liked and disliked music conditions…and again, these were “significantly poorer than the quiet and steady-state speech conditions.” Again, I found the study to be properly randomized with multiple experiments to replicate the findings even within the study. SO! Silence/steady noise is still the best option, and music preference doesn’t seem to affect memory recall and cognition skills.
But there’s just one more thing that I wanted to check out. All of these studies dealt with memory and computation skills, but not all homework is memory and computation. In fact, for most of us non-science majors, a lot of our homework deals with critical thinking and creative thought processes (whether it’s English Literature, Visual Arts, or Marketing). So I looked at another study on the effects of music on creative cognition. First, if you’re concerned, I think the study did a decent job of quantifying creativity. In all of the experiments, participants were asked to do a creative task (example: generate new ideas for a mattress), there was an independent panel of judges randomly selected to evaluate the creativity of their work, and the scores were then averaged for an overall “creativity score.” Though creativity is extremely subjective and hard to evaluate, I found this study to be valid. The study concluded that participants were the most creative when there was a moderate level of ambient noise and that low and high levels of ambient noise were equally worse. Why though? Basically, when there’s the noise, that noise disrupts cognitive processes and this is called processing disfluency. But when the level of noise is just right, a certain amount of distraction leads to creative thought. It’s basically a Goldilocks Theory: too little noise and your brain isn’t distracted enough to be creative, too much noise and even creative processing becomes too difficult.
But a moderate amount of noise or music (around 70 decibels) in effect shakes your brain out of its normal thinking patterns enough that you can think in abstract creative terms.
So what’s the take home message? Try to find a consistent and quiet environment to work in. If you can’t, maybe try listening to white or pink noise to “block out” the random distractions. If you’re doing “creative” homework, consider listening to medium volume music or ambient noise in order to create that “processing disfluency” that I mentioned earlier. In the end, you have to create a musical/noise environment in which you’re focusing the most on your work rather than the environment itself.