Anyone who has ever had to pull an all-nighter can attest to the fact that sometimes a good study playlist is exactly the thing you need to help get you through an epic cram session. What is good study music? Is there music for studying and concentration that works better than other music? Is silence the best way to absorb new information? Scientists have done significant research in this area to help you find just the right sounds for maximum information retention and focus.
Calming and ambient music or music that contains nature sounds can be very good study music.
Why Is it Important to Focus?
Whether you're working on a project that requires concentration or you're trying to study and remember something, your brain needs to be able to focus. While multitasking has gotten a lot of attention, particularly in the '90s and '00s as Americans' desire to be more productive began to blossom, recent research shows that focusing on one task at a time is actually the best way to get more things accomplished.
How can you develop focus? For many people, especially millennials who have technology of all kinds complete with dozens of distractions at their fingertips, focusing on something for more than five minutes is nearly impossible. However, as anyone who has worked on a long-term creative or scientific project can tell you, focus is critical.
No matter how much self-discipline you have, external factors outside of your control may make it difficult for you to achieve the focus that you need. People working in crowded offices, noisy coffee shops or homes where there is a lot of activity or street noise often struggle to focus without getting distracted by the sounds and goings-on around them. So, what are you to do if you can't shut yourself in a soundproof room until your work is done? One option for anyone who wants to concentrate well is music.
What Is the Best Music for Studying and Concentration?
Popular research has historically suggested that classical music is good study music across the board. This is true for some people but not for all. Classical music's benefits are that it is generally fairly repetitive and follows a pattern without much dissonance or atonal quality. The lack of lyrics means that there are fewer distractions, and the brain will not face the impulse to follow the words and make sense of them or try to guess what comes next.
Classical music is so popular as a study tool that CDs like "Mozart for Your Mind" and other classical study-centric CDs have sold millions of copies. However, for some people, classical music isn't just bad study music – it's bad music. Some people hate classical music, so even as a study aid, it's not particularly helpful. Fortunately, classical music is not the only music that can help foster concentration.
While classical music as brain food is a myth that has since been busted, music can still help you focus. The key to good study music is music that minimizes distractions, proceeds in a rhythmic pattern and doesn't move forward in a way that jars the listener. For example, any music that follows a fairly predictable pattern is relaxing and good for focus. This music can allow the mind to shift to the task at hand instead of unconsciously following along with the music.
What Is Bad Study Music?
The main thing to avoid is novelty. Don't put on your favorite artist's new album and expect to be able to relax and move into a productive state. The brain will follow the music as soon as it begins because it is unfamiliar and likely pleasing. Anything novel attracts the mind, and the hit of dopamine we get when we experience something new does not lend itself well to cultivating focus.
The same goes for music that we hate or music that has heavy or serious emotional connotations. If your ex made you a playlist, and you're still not over him, studying with that as your study music all but guarantees that you won't remember a thing. Music with emotional associations can actually affect our moods significantly, and since our moods may rise or fall with emotionally charged music, it doesn't give us the neutral feeling we need to lose ourselves in the task at hand.
How Should I Build a Study Playlist?
Think of the music that is most calming to you and also the most familiar. For many people, the best study music is instrumental. These songs have no lyrics, so there is no danger of getting distracted by the words of a song or finding yourself singing along to them as you work. For some people, ambient music, which is a variety of music that emphasizes tonal or atmospheric sounds over melodies, is very good study music.
Once you have arrived at the genre of music that best allows you to lose yourself and focus on the task at hand, you can begin building your playlist. If you would like to take a look at what works for other people, you can search a streaming service or YouTube with the words "music for studying," download a concentration podcast or simply play the same song over and over and see if that works.
Many services like iTunes offer the "genius" feature, which can help select songs similar to the one you selected in order to generate a musical experience that's similar in rhythm. The best way to build a good study playlist is through trial and error. If you find that when you put on jazz you totally lose sight of everything you were worried about and focus immediately on the task at hand, then that's your perfect study music.
Study Music for an Office Environment
While some researchers say that music is too distracting to play during studying because it can help impede recall skills, others say that listening to music before studying is a great idea. It can help get the mind ready and bring it into excited focus. However, not all tasks require the kind of concentration that studying or reading does.
If you are working in an office and have some seriously tedious tasks to get through that don't require a ton of cognitive activity, then music may help you focus enough to get in the zone and get it done. Researchers found that music with nature sounds actually helps to filter out distractions in noisy office environments because it helps trick the brain into thinking that you're outside and allows noise to fade into the background.
If you can put on a nature study music playlist or something that has ocean or bird sounds, you may find yourself able to focus very well. In the absence of that, something with a dominant instrument that you find soothing can be a very helpful way to get focused, concentrate and get into the flow of productivity.
Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.