Headphones can seem ubiquitous in a college library, a function of responsible students’ attempts to isolate themselves from the conversations and noises around them. However, another form of distraction may be coming right up those cables, and for some, it may be time to face the music — or more specifically, the lyrics.
“Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you’re writing or reading,” said Clifford Nass, professor at Stanford University. “Probably less of an effect on math, if you’re not using the language parts of your brain.”
Music has a profound impact on our state of being, altering everything from mood to heart rate. It can energize or depress us. Medium levels of arousal are ideal for studying – not too agitated and not too relaxed – and music can also be an effective tool in leading students to that level.
“Imagine trying to learn something while you’re on a roller coaster,” Nass said. “If you’re feeling agitated, you can listen to more calming music, and that will absolutely have a positive effect.”
Glenn Schellenberg, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Toronto, published a study that indicates fast, loud background music hinders reading comprehension.
“The reason why it’s a mess is you have cognitive limitations. If you’re doing two things at once you don’t focus as well,” he said. “On the other hand, we know that music changes how you feel, and often it can change how you feel in a positive way.”
In other words, it seems carefully tailoring the music you listen to while studying, based on the subject matter and your mood, can help keep you focused — so long as you stay away from lyrics while doing language-based work.
Music has always had its place at college, but as it has become more portable and high quality, it is reaching areas where it never used to take up residence.
“In my day, there was no way you could take music to the library,” Nass said. “When [today's students] go to the library to study, they bring their noise, and music, with them.”
In any case, music is very likely better than Facebook and Twitter, and in a world where multitasking has become extremely common because everything is on one device, some students find music helps keep them focused while studying.
“Especially when music doesn’t have words, it can help me get into the reading and stop me getting distracted by other things,” said Melanie Fineman, a junior at Brown University. “It makes studying more enjoyable.”
Some more modern alternatives to the usual lyric-less Mozart:
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