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Does Music Help You Study?
Can music really boost your IQ and improve your grades? This thrilling idea has been around for decades and has been the subject of a considerable amount of research. What would be better than being able to chill out with your favourite songs and know you’re getting smarter with each passing minute? Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that, but there are potentially some real benefits you can enjoy from listening to music while you study!
The “Mozart Effect”
The now-famous “Mozart Effect” is a phrase originating from 1991, which was legitimised by a study in 1993. The idea is that listening to Mozart’s music can actually improve your brain function. The idea was hugely popular, resulting in widespread media and public interest. Thousands of parents, looking to give their children the best start in life, picked up on the idea and started playing Mozart for their kids. The idea evolved and found new applications, until even livestock were listening to Mozart to improve their quality.
Where does the truth lie? The original 1993 study was conducted at the University of California by researcher Francis Raushcer, and involved just 36 university students. They were played 10 minutes of a Mozart Piano Sonata and then completed a ‘spatial reasoning’ test (i.e. dealing with relationships between objects in both two and three dimensions, essentially the ability to visualise with the ‘mind’s eye’). The experiment was repeated with 10 minutes of silence and 10 minutes of someone speaking in a monotone voice.
The researchers found the students really did score significantly higher on the spatial reasoning test after listening to the Mozart Sonata! That’s not the complete story though: the cognitive gains were only found to last 10-15 minutes, the ‘IQ boost’ was only small and the study only tested for a very specific type of intelligence. This is a fascinating finding, but it was blown out of proportion, misinterpreted and misquoted, until the real facts were lost in the phenomenon known as the ‘Mozart Effect’.
Debuffing (well, at least clarifying) the Mozart Effect
Subsequent researchers have repeated that original study numerous times over the years to try and find the truth of the matter. A meta-analysis of 16 studies on the subject found that the real effect was small, did not result in a change in IQ or reasoning ability in general, affects one specific type of cognitive task, with a simple neurophysical explanation. Another meta-analysis, looking at an even greater number of studies, found that other music worked just as well. In one case Schubert was used, and even listening to someone read a passage from a Stephen King novel produced the same effect – but only if you enjoyed it. The reality is that any activity that stimulates your brain – whether music, a cup of coffee, or running on the spot for a minutes – will likely have a similar effect.
For a more permanent IQ boost…
It may not be as quick and simple as clicking play on your iPod, but learning to play a musical instrument has been demonstrated to have a positive and longer lasting effect on your brain. Cognitive scientist Jessica Grahn, from Western University in London, Ontario, says that you can increase your IQ by as much as three points with a year of piano lessons combined with regular practice. Not exactly what the Mozart Effect promised, but it’s a handy side effect of learning a cool new skill!
Studying to music
So it’s probably fair to say that just listening to Mozart isn’t going to turn you into an instant genius. So how about combining music with some good, old fashioned study?
Clinical psychologist Dr Emma Gray, conducting research on behalf of music streaming service Spotify, found that students are more likely to perform well academically if they listen to music while they study. It can’t just be any music though; you have to match the right type of music with the right subject.
Mathematicians were found to benefit from classical music with 60-70 Beats per Minute (BPM). The melody and tone range is believed to induce relaxation that helps the mind remain calm but alert, with a stimulated imagination and heightened concentration. The effect seems to be similar to a meditative state and improves learning, with those students who did study to classical music scoring an average 12% higher on their maths exams.
Those studying science, humanities and languages should seek out pop music with 50-80 beats per minute, as this was found to have a calming effect on the mind which helps with logical thought. The brain was then better able to learn and remember new facts. For drama and the arts, emotive rock and pop was found to be the best as it induces a heightened state of excitement which can positively affect creative performances – but be sure to choose music that reflects the emotions you’re trying to express!
It seems that while listening to music won’t immediately make you more intelligent, studying to music can enhance your education. The experience of listening to music can put you in a better frame of mind; while listening to the right kind of music for the subject you’re studying can actually improve your learning. It has actually been found that students who do listen to music while they study can actually outperform those that don’t (but only in the right circumstances!).
For some light (and not so light) reading and listening on the subject, check out: