Listening to music while studying or doing homework is a typical habit among college students. In libraries, many people ignore the brittle, artificial silence that envelops the tables and shelves by isolating themselves from the outside world through headphones and a pleasant melody.
In certain offices, the same thing occurs, though separating oneself from others is more difficult if you work in a team or a huge office with open spaces. Whether or not there is isolation, however, the common factor for these people is that they see music as a tool that can improve concentration, productivity, and overall task performance.
Does music help us concentrate better on what we are doing, whether memorizing text, studying complex subjects, or writing projects?
Music in repetitive tasks
Scientific studies on this subject have been carried out for many decades. Among other things, because if music can be used to improve the performance of students or workers, this information can be beneficial for organizations capable of financing this kind of study.
For example, a study published in 1972 aimed to understand the connection between listening to tunes and improvements in productivity. According to a series of observations, their performance increased when workers heard music coming from loudspeakers.
However, this research was a child of its time and was used to study only a particular and representative work context: the factories. The workforce’s tasks were monotonous, predictable, and dull. Therefore, music served as a mental stimulus. As the work was more grateful and pleasant, the results in productivity were also better.
Other research later reinforced the idea that music improves the performance of routine and monotonous tasks. It was good news since much of the workforce was assembling items on assembly lines, but what about more complex, monotonous jobs? What about the more complex and creative assignments that machines cannot do?
When the task is complicated, silence is best
In fact, any intellectual task requires concentration, even if you are not a banker who controls the financial processes in a bank, an accountant who counts the salaries of employees, or a writer in a paper writing service where you have to come up with content and be as creative as possible. So, it seems that when the task at hand requires us to concentrate on what we are doing, the presence of music is a burden we should avoid.
Many studies hold this line: the catchiest melodies or melodies that the person likes have devastating effects on performance when studying or performing moderately complex mental operations, especially if the music has lyrics in a language understood.
Even if music is chosen for study, it may be enjoyable rather than aid memory and learning. People listen to these songs even though they harm productivity, not because they are effective in that circumstance.
Why isn’t it acceptable to listen to music when you’re studying?
Multitasking and attentional focus are two notions that can help. It can complete multiple tasks simultaneously and is closely linked to working memory. This type of memory is in charge of keeping in our mind the elements we function within in real-time. What happens is that this kind of Random Access Memory of our brain is minimal, and it is believed that it can only serve to manipulate at the same time between 4 and 7 elements at the same time.
Attentional focus is how the brain orients mental processes towards resolving some problems and not others. When we concentrate on something, we make a large part of our nervous system start working to solve it, but to do so, we have to pay the price of neglecting other functions.
That is why, for example, if we are walking down the street thinking about something, we often find ourselves taking a detour to continue walking along with one of the routes we usually follow: the route to work, the way to the bus stop, etc.
However, the attentional focus has the drawback of only covering specific processes and not others. Furthermore, we should remember that we do not always have complete control over it, and it might quickly divert from our intended course of action.
Music, in general, is one of the main entices to which people’s attention is drawn. It is elementary for the attentional focus to become disengaged from study or the performance of complex mental operations to move on to enjoy the appreciation of the melody and the verses it contains.
Therefore, it is advisable not to disrupt our attentional focus by presenting it with a distracting temptation in the shape of pleasant music and understandable lyrics for those more complex tasks. But why is it that in monotonous tasks, this effect is not noticeable? The answer is that a good part of the processes we carry out when attending to routine tasks is managed by our brain that fulfills its objectives without the attentional focus intervening.
Specifically, motor memory, mediated by encephalic structures known as basal ganglia, is responsible for a large part of these sequences of automated actions. Just look at how people who have been working for years fitting parts on an assembly line work: they may work so fast that what they do seems very difficult, but in reality, they don’t even concentrate very hard to do it.
All in all, it depends on the type of content to be studied. Music’s effect on our ability to learn varies according to the complexity of the contents. For the most mechanical and monotonous tasks, which are those in which the same memorization system can always guide us, music can make us make more significant progress. For the most complicated tasks, practically in all cases listening to music is inefficient and hinders the action of studying.