Music on the Brain


Jose Rems

University of Utah library students lounge for comfort. Salt Lake City, UT on Thursday,Oct.5, 2017 (Photo by Jose Remes/ Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Cara MacDonald

At the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, most students pop in headphones before sitting down to focus on homework. Does music help students study effectively? While opinions vary, some U researchers believe it does.

U psychology professors and researchers David Sanbonmatsu and David Strayer have been working together to study the abilities of the human attention span, specifically focusing on driving and how phone use affects driving ability. Their area of expertise is not music, but because of their work and credentials, they were willing to share their thoughts on the subject.

“I can speculate that listening to music isn’t terribly distracting,” Sanbonmatsu said. “It depends on the type of music [the person is] listening to, but it’s not likely to impair the task in the same way other distractions might. It also can be a benefit, providing background noise to drown other noises out. I hypothesize that it can also help put a person in the right kind of mood to study.”

Listening to one’s favorite music or songs with a lot of words and/or activity may be distracting because the brain is engaging more with the music and less with the task at hand. Sanbonmatsu emphasized that although most people believe they are highly skilled at multitasking, the vast majority of people aren’t able to engage their minds actively on more than one task at a time.

A study conducted by Stanford University’s psychology department utilized fMRIs to test this idea. The researchers took brain scans of people while listening to music by 18th century composers containing solely instrumentals. The results showed that music activates areas of the brain associated with paying attention, making predictions and memory storage.

The goal of the study was to look at how the brain prioritizes stimulation, but they discovered that classical music actually seems to help the brain organize information. Subjects utilized music to help make sense of the continual flow of inputs generated by the world, which is a process known as event segmentation. The brain separates information into meaningful segments by sampling knowledge about beginnings, endings and boundaries between events. The study revealed that instrumental classical music assisted with this process and allowed subjects to organize information more effectively and efficiently.

In addition to Stanford’s research, several other universities have taken interest in the subject. synthesized a series of studies done on using music to help with studying.  According to their analysis, listening to music while studying seems to largely depend on the type of work that the student is trying to do as well as the type of music in the background. If someone is attempting to remember a wide variety of things at the same time or work through multiple problems, music may not be conducive to the work as it adds just one more thing that the brain is processing. It might slow the brain down.

“People who are impulsive and are highly sensation-seeking tend to be more easily distracted and less able to keep their minds on the single task at hand,” Sanbonmatsu added.

In other words, the way that music affects the brain varies by person.

“Your brain power is limited,” explained David Strayer in a recent lecture to an outdoor education course. “If you’re interacting with a stimulus, you’re doing that instead of doing something else.”

That said, music may also help easily distracted people by drowning out other sounds. The prefrontal cortex can be overtaxed by the modern environment, which is full of beeps, buzzes and flashing lights, so drowning out other stimuli may prove beneficial.

“Our attention is either voluntary or involuntary,” Strayer added. “Voluntary attention is conscious and takes effort. It utilizes the prefrontal cortex and causes a lot of mental depletion and fatigue. Involuntary attention is moving and animate. It captures your attention but doesn’t have clear edges.”

Soft, calmer music containing no words tends to involve involuntary attention more than voluntary, and therefore won’t engage the voluntary attention which should be focused on the task at hand. More exciting music can cause more of an impact.

Further, music heavily activates the right side of the brain and may promote creativity and innovation. Many people report enhanced productivity and quality of work when listening to music while writing, drawing or brainstorming.

“Music helps me sometimes, usually only with math or science,” said Mateuzs Gdánksi, who studies parks, recreation and tourism. “Last year I pulled an all-nighter before a final and the music I played definitely helped. I was listening to a rhythmic, fast-paced techno genre.”

David Payne, a chemical engineering student, also only listens to music selectively.

“Music does not usually help me study,” Payne said. “I listen to classical songs because there’s no rhythm and I don’t really care about it, so it’s not distracting.”

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