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To the Beat of Your Own Drum – Does Music Help You Study?

If you crank the tunes when you hit the books, you may be giving yourself a mental boost. While studies on the effects of music on the brain abound, there’s also a wide range of findings. But the research seems to support at least one key benefit: music tends to help people stick with a project.

“Music seems to engage individuals in whatever task so they persist longer,” said Professor Eugenia Costa-Giomi, PhD, of the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music. “Not necessarily improve performance … you can be looking at accuracy of responses, score on a test, but you can also look at persistence in an academic task – how many times you try to solve the problems, how many problems you try to solve.”

This is not to say there aren’t other benefits, but the effects of music vary depending on the individual, the setting and many other factors, Costa-Giomi said. She says she always asks her university students – musicians -- if they listen to music while they study.

“Some say it’s impossible not to pay attention to the music; they’ll get distracted,” she said. “There are others that actually say it helps them keep studying. They choose the music very carefully so it’s not distracting.”

The right type of music before a test may help tune up your thinking, she said.

“In regards to just listening, which is what the Mozart Effect is about, what we know is the tempo of the music has a lot to do with the intellectual arousal that occurs during listening that can have positive effects on test-taking,” Costa-Giomi said. “You are a little bit more alert.”

That alertness isn’t limited to just Mozart, she said.

“Anything that engages the person during a 15-minute period as opposed to sitting, doing nothing, waiting and then taking a test,” she said. “The tempo of the music was one of the variables that affected performance in certain tests. More upbeat, faster tempos led to more intellectual arousal and better performance in certain tests.”

But that improved performance doesn’t last long.

“The sad side of all this, if there is an improvement in performance, it’s very short-lived,” Costa-Giomi said. “If you become more intelligent, it only lasts about 15 minutes. The great thing is there doesn’t seem to be too many negative effects.”

Other than an upbeat tempo, there’s really no specific style of music (instrumental vs. vocal, classical vs. pop, etc.) that’s been clearly proven as the best choice.

“The difference is so mediated by the tempo of the music, the style of the music, the individual characteristics of the listener, it becomes very hard to give a single recommendation,” she said.

So when it comes down to it, you’re actually the true expert when it comes to determining whether you should pop those ear buds in or unplug altogether.

“There are lots of individual differences and characteristics of the music that may affect the outcome,” she said. “ (If the students) believe it has a positive affect, ultimately, that’s what’s important.”

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