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Are you a fan of listening to music while studying? Do you find it impossible to work without it? Find out if it’s doing you harm… or benefitting you.

Pregnant moms are often advised to play music to their unborn babies. The premise is that babies in utero absorb the atmosphere and mood around them, including their mother’s mood.

Today’s teenagers may have picked up on this, because all around us, we see teens listening to music and studying at the same time. The jury is still out on whether parents should be alarmed, put their collective feet down or encourage it.

Here are a few arguments for:

It keeps our unconscious mind in check: One argument in favour of listening to music goes like this: Our minds operate at two levels when it comes to attention span. Our conscious mind focuses on the thing we consciously want to do (for example, thread a needle or learn algebra). Our unconscious mind does not go dormant though. It keeps ticking over in the background, listening for out of the ordinary sounds, scanning the environment, and basically staying alert to dangers and changes. It is the unconscious mind that disturbs us when we are studying as it can easily be distracted by something it considers unusual, odd, significant or more interesting. Listening to music can keep the unconscious mind in check so that it does not distract us.

This is especially true if the music is predictable, with a steady rhythm or beat and without lyrics. Most students who say they listen to music while studying prefer instrumental tunes. It’s a ball ache to concentrate with Adele singing: “hello?” into your ear.

It helps to study longer: Some students believe that they are able to study for longer if they are listening to music. This is because the music takes away the boredom of the task, and masks sounds like coughs and doors opening that could be distracting.

It’s uplifting: Others say listening to music makes them feel good (just like the fetus in her mom’s tummy?) and that when you’re feeling good, you’re more able to give yourself over to what needs to be done and get on with it. This makes perfect sense. A study among workers doing repetitive tasks show that their affect is better working with music than with silence, and that their productivity increased because they are in a better mood.

And one or two against:

You’re not as productive: A contradictory study found that people recalled less when given a problem-solving task while listening to music, than those working in silence. The significance of this is that while listening to music may certainly be an invaluable mood lifter, that does not mean you are doing your best work. You may well be doing yourself a disservice.

You may be taking longer: And that thing about being able to work longer when listening to music? Well, it may be that you are working longer because you are less efficient when listening to music.

It’s difficult to give up the habit if you’ve been doing it for a long time. And there’s also not enough conclusive proof to say that it puts you at a definite disadvantage. So here are some tips when deciding whether to listen to music while studying:

  • Don’t listen to music when you are trying to understand difficult concepts. You really need all your grey matter focused on one thing for this talk. The same when you are revising for an exam.
  • Do listen to classical, or harmonious music with a predictable beat.
  • Stay away from songs with words, especially narrative songs.
  • Don’t listen to it full blast. Keep it very quiet, almost as background noise.
  • Do listen before you start studying to get a mood lift. Then consider switching it off.
  • Rather listen to music when you take a break than while you’re studying. That way it punctuates your studying and provides a reward!
  • Music sounds don’t have to be instrumental. You can also listen to birdsong, rain or the sound of the sea.
  • Don’t listen to music radio stations. The adverts and the presenters’ talking will distract you. Talkshows or phone-ins are the most distracting, as are podcasts.
  • Don’t spend longer choosing your music than you do on studying!