Music: Productivity Cure or Productivity Killer?

You glance at the clock. 6:00 p.m. Groaning, you look at the pile of uncompleted homework, plug in your earbuds and blast music. After a few songs you’re instantly in a better mood and ready to begin studying, feeling much more productive while listening to your tunes. However, does music actually help you finish homework, or is it dragging you down?

First, let’s answer the question of why we listen to music. What makes us plug in our earbuds when doing homework, folding laundry or doing any tedious task? According to Psychology Today, listening to music causes a release of dopamine — the hormone that essentially makes us happier — explaining the usual inclination to reach for our earbuds when we’re doing a task that makes us not so happy. AP Biology teacher Renee Fallon expresses this in simpler sentiments.

“[Students study with music] for the same reason people continue to study the ways that are not effective,” Ms. Fallon said. “It’s easier and more pleasant.”

However, MVHS students will be devastated to hear that music actually makes studying much harder. A recent study at the University of Wales examined how background music affects students’ ability to memorize information. Students were split into three groups and asked to remember items in a specific order. One group performed in a quiet environment as a control, the second with a song of their choice and the third with a disliked song. Regardless of whether or not students in the second and third group enjoyed the music, they performed significantly worse than the control group. Overall, this proved that although the song choice doesn’t matter, it definitely has detrimental effects on concentration.

This ties back to why we listen to it in the first place: we enjoy it. Although it makes the listener happy to listen to a song he or she enjoys, the listener is also more distracted and dedicates less attention to the main focus—homework.

“If I’m listening to a song I like, obviously I’m gonna listen to that song,” junior Debbie Ho said. “I’m gonna sing the song. Especially if I’m doing a reading assignment, I’ll be reading something, but I’ll be thinking the lyrics in my head.”

Additionally, there are varying effects for different types of music. A 2006 study from the Journal of Ergonomics found continuous noise to be the least distracting background noise, while distinguishable speech and lyrics made it the hardest to focus. Basically, the more engaging the music was, the harder it was to concentrate. And this does make sense; while listening to a catchy song, it’s difficult to not get caught up in the beats, the tune and the lyrics. Ho confirms this with her experience.

“Any song where I can make out what they’re saying would probably not be helpful,” Ho said.

Another discovery was that variation in the song, whether in volume or rhythm, made it more difficult to focus; you’ll pay more attention to a song with many unexpected twists and turns than one you can easily zone out to. In fact, classical or instrumental songs, especially peaceful and mellow songs, were actually the best choices to enhance mental performance out of all types of music.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the effects of music vary from person to person, even depending on your personality. According to the Atlantic, introverts fared worse when listening to music while working. One possible explanation was that they were usually more easily overwhelmed by stimuli and therefore more sensitive to distractions such as noise. Extroverts were more used to outside stimuli and would respond less, focusing on the more important task at hand instead.

So next time, before you reach for those earbuds when starting your dreaded homework, remember to keep the effects of listening to music in mind. Although it is definitely a good way to relieve stress and uplift your mood before studying, it makes memorizing and concentrating harder, meaning it will take longer to finish homework and study. Fallon effectively explains why.

“If you really need to stimulate some creativity, then yes, to some extent, distracting your conscious mind is actually a good thing,” Fallon said. “But when you’re studying, you’re not trying to distract your conscious mind.”

But if you insist on listening to something, try white noise, which drowns out sounds for a simulated silence or sounds of nature. Also, remember that familiar songs or songs you’re indifferent to will be least distracting when studying; you probably won’t pay too much attention when listening to a song you don’t care for or have heard thousands of times on the radio.

“The truth of the matter is music is not good for you; it’s sort of self-deception to assume that it is helping,” Fallon said. “If you absolutely want to listen to music, make it instrumental. Without words…and without too strong a beat that pulls you away.”

Most importantly, find what works for you. Everyone is different and has their own unique way of studying to maximize their efficiency, whether it be listening to music or silence. Ho has found her solution through white noise.

“It’s easier to listen to something you can’t follow [like] white noise,” Ho said. “It removes other sounds and helps me concentrate on what needs to be done.”