As a college student myself, I’m no stranger to the comfort that music provides. Many of my friends listen to music all day, whether that be while walking to class, in class, or lounging outside in the sun. On my campus, you’ll find music everywhere from a student’s blaring Airpod to the speakers in the dining hall. Music is life, joy, and solace for everyone, not only stressed-out college students. We consciously choose to explore what music has in store for us, whether we want to face it or not.
Although music exists with the capacity for security and strength, I’ve found that it has the ability to be harmful to my academic well-being. To preface this perspective, as the fall semester has once again begun, I have seen that many people around me will listen to music while studying, reading, or writing an assignment. I, myself, have been using music for the entirety of my college career, though I’ve always noticed a difference between the calm that I reach when listening to instrumental over lyrical music, especially when I go to study for my exams.
Rather recently, however, I decided to stick with my lyrical music as it made me feel better when I went to study, instead of feeling like I wanted to take a nap. Though this change fostered different results than normal, as I felt it was extremely difficult to study while listening to my daily mix on Spotify. In fact, I was experiencing such a hard time trying to study while listening to my favorite music, that I wondered why it was so hard for me to focus. After trying to listen to different kinds of music while studying, I noticed that it was much easier for me to not only focus but remember what I had studied if I removed my music from the equation entirely. To my disdain, my focus improved immediately, and I could study without feeling overly distracted by what was pumping through my headphones.
After having the same results every time, I went to study without music, I wanted to assuage my curiosity behind the why. Why couldn’t I continue to focus with lyrical music that I loved? To find my answer, I went (of course) to Google. One site argued that while listening to music may improve your mood, it doesn’t necessarily help you study better. A second site recommended that during long study sessions music can aid in endurance and in battling anxious feelings whereas another argued that listening to a specific set of songs while studying may act as retrieval cues if you are able to listen to the same songs when you attempt to complete your test or quiz.
Though these arguments were fascinating, I wanted to find some real, empirical evidence about this weird experience I had been having with music and studying. Following a few rabbit holes in my library’s databases, I found several psychological studies that tracked how people performed during instances of serial recall (the same kind of activity I had been studying for) if they listened to music or were exposed to a silent condition while studying. Many researchers observed what is called the irrelevant sound effect, described by Meinhardt-Injac and colleagues (2015) as the disruptive results of irrelevant, or to-be-ignored sound in comparison to silent conditions during performances of serial recall. Essentially, this paradigm examines the effects of varying kinds of sound conditions on a subject’s later ability to recall what they studied.
Upon discovering this research and digging deeper into the field, this concept appears to be a part of the reasoning behind the why. Why did I struggle to remember the information when I studied with music? Well, the irrelevant sound paradigm offers a likely explanation for my inability to study well and recall later on. Due to this information, I now plan to study without any kind of music, and in a private, secluded environment like a quiet corner of my library. While this offered an explanation for my study struggle, it may not be the answer to yours. If you have trouble studying with music or other extraneous distractions, be sure to explore this paradigm further. Maybe you’ll find your ideal study environment.
Meinhardt-Injac, B., Schlittmeier, S., Klatte, M., Otto, A., Persike, M., Imhof, M. (2015) Auditory Distraction by Meaningless Irrelevant Speech: A Developmental Study. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 217-225. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3098
Articles for Further Exploration
Perham, N., & Vizard, J. (2011) Can Preference for Background Music Mediate the Irrelevant Sound Effect? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 625-631. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1731
Schweppe, J., & Knigge, J. (2020) Irrelevant music: How suprasegmental changes of a melody’s tempo and mode affect the disruptive potential of music on serial recall. Memory & Cognition, 48, 982-993. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-020-01037-1