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Music and the Brain: Top Tunes for Studying

Mar 02, 2011

Numerous studies show no official correlation between music and memory. That means that listening to some tunes while studying does not necessarily help one's recollection of material, nor does it automatically hinder it. So if you're someone who enjoys hitting the books with a little accompaniment, check out the tips below for some help.

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By Eric Garneau

Can Music Really Help You Study?

According to a study published by the University of South Florida, the effects of listening to music while learning are negligible. The study took a sample group of undergraduate students from a music appreciation class and gave them different environments in which to take a mathematics test. Some students listened to 'classical music' (represented in this study by a Mozart divertimento), others to 'popular music' (represented by ZZ Top's first album) and a third group listened to nothing at all. At the end of the study, there were no significant differences found in test scores between the three groups.

That's not necessarily conclusive evidence, though, that music has no effect on academic performance. It suggests that students will perform a certain way regardless of external influences, certainly. But what it doesn't really take into consideration is how the students feel during a given task.

brain and music

Of course, math tests are not really designed to be enjoyable. But the above-mentioned research leaves open the possibility that the presence of music might make studying for a test less of a chore. That depends on the kind of person you are - whether or not you get easily distracted, or if some background noise actually helps you concentrate on the task at hand. If you like listening to music while you learn, there may be some musical selections that can help make your study sessions more productive.

Go For Baroque

A Kansas State University publication on improving concentration suggests that if music helps you focus, instrumental and relatively monotonous songs are probably your best bet. They single out Baroque music, the predominant style in Europe for the duration of the 17th century, as well as the first half of the 18th. During that period, major composers like Handel, Bach and Vivaldi left their mark. Indeed, instrumental music came to prominence thanks in large part to artists like them.

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Think Modern

It probably goes without saying, though, that a fair amount of students aren't orchestral music fans. If that describes you, take solace! There's other music out there that might make your study sessions a little more pleasant.

music relax study

When you want to be able to concentrate on your work, the key seems to be removing any music that's too distracting. So, unfortunately, aggressive heavy metal bands like Megadeth should probably fall by the wayside (yes, even their instrumental pieces). Similarly, anything with a driving, repetitive beat might lead one into a bit of a trance, which excludes a lot of club, dance and even Top 40 music.

The alternative/indie world seems to offer the most options here. Consider, for instance, Radiohead. Their 2000 album Kid A is essentially ambient noise with hints of melody. It's the perfect record to provide a soundtrack for some serious brain exercise. Even their more straightforward work, like OK Computer or The Bends, doesn't often venture into especially distracting territories.

There're a lot of other bands on the acoustic or electronic side of alternative and indie rock that might fit a studying bill, as well. For instance, one wouldn't imagine the catalog of the New Pornographers or the Decemberists to be too intrusive. There's also singer-songwriter types, ranging from Elton John to Ben Harper, whose generally light arrangements should provide a relaxing background for your study session.

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