And the Beat Goes On: Music & Concentration

Aug 12, 2015

Recently we’ve been discussing the many ways that music interacts with our various brain functions and perceptions. Continuing in that vein this week, we’re going to talk a little about a particular music-brain interaction that you might think of as a kind of “Brain Hack.” We all know from personal experience what music can do to our moods, thoughts, memories, perceptions, and even the amount of energy we feel (and if you’re a regular reader of this blog you might even know some of the reasons behind all that). Most of you also probably know from personal experience that a lot of loud music can be extremely distracting and does not make for the best studying environment. That being said, don’t disparage music’s use as a valuable studying tool. Whether it’s a child or teen studying for an upcoming test or exam, or an adult preparing for accreditation or just a presentation for work, the right choice of music for the topic can help to enhance concentration while improving information intake, understanding, and retention. A number of scientific studies have concluded that this is because music can literally reshape your brain.

That’s a pretty big statement, and can be a little frightening if you think about it too hard, so what does it really mean? In essence your brain is constantly being reshaped through the creation of new neural connections and associations, both created over time as a reaction to changes in behaviour, your environment, and other processes that occur naturally in the brain. It is widely accepted that these changes and adaptation occur more easily and frequently during childhood, however many parts of the brain remain elastic and adaptable well into adulthood; music plays on some of these parts of the brain. In fact, the Stanford University School of Medicine recently performed a study looking at the parts of the brain that responded to music from the baroque period (1600-1750). The researchers observed that when the music was played for their participants, their brain’s showed increased attention in between each movement. After analyzing their data, they came to the conclusion that, “[M]usic engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory.” What this means for the average person is that listening to music (at an appropriate volume) may help your brain’s ability to focus on and retain new information. An entire new field of instruction and teaching has even come out of this phenomena. Called “Accelerated Learning,” it was created with the idea of integrating music into the learning environment. The Washington University in St. Louis School of Law has compiled a Spotify playlist of the kind of music used in many studies. The list includes composers like Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, and Handel, to name a few. Give it a try the next time you have something to study, and let them know how it went!

But what is it about music from the baroque period that does this to our brains? Music from this period in time tends to have about 60 to 70 beats per minute, and it turns out, it may be more about these beats per minute than the actual genre of music being listened to. Often referred to as the “Mozart effect,” this has been shown to be true in a number of studies. One in particular found that students with high levels of anxiety scored 12% better on math exams when they listened to music with the proper number of beats per minute while studying. It is believed music at 60 to 70 beats per minute stimulates the left hemisphere of the brain, where factual information and problem solving is processed. Further research has found that songs with 50 to 80 beats per minute (a much larger range), such as pop songs like We Can’t Stop by Miley Cyrus and Mirrors by Justin Timberlake, have a calming effect on the brain, permitting more effective logical thought. This puts the brain in a state that allows for more efficient learning and memorization of new facts. But Dr. Emma Gray, a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavioural therapy, warns that “[M]usic outside of this range will not induce this state and, so, will not assist leaning in the same way.” When it comes to studying for art, drama, or English, which use right brained creative processes, Dr. Gray says “emotive rock and pop music is the best.” This kind of music helps excite your brain, which readies it for creative thinking and performance. Songs like Firework from Katy Perry, or I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction) by the Rolling Stones work great for this.

The last two real things to keep in mind when adding music to your study process are to be mindful of the volume and your choice in music. Nicole Charara, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Psychology in Singapore, advises that the volume be kept at a level that does not become distracting, adding, “[T]he music should be playing in the background. It should keep you motivated during long study sessions.” And while you are, of course, free to choose your own music, Ms. Charara also suggests that purely instrumental music may be better for logic problems, like math. “If you find yourself looking at the radio and singing the songs, then it is obviously not going to work,” says Ms. Charara. However, if you do find yourself singing along and not accomplishing anything, fear not! You can still reap some of the concentration benefits by playing music before you begin studying. This can increase the heart rate, and gets you ready to focus.

Music is a great motivator, especially if it is music you like! So next time you find yourself getting ready to study up on something, consider a playlist of songs with 60 to 70 beats per minute. It’s not hard to figure out, just count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply by 6. Stick to instrumental for logic problems, and emotive pop or rock for creative inspiration. And remember, keep it low and in the background. If you’re concentrating on the lyrics, you’re not concentrating on your studying!