Is there evidence that listening to music can aid/hinder concentration or performance?

Is there evidence that listening to music can aid/hinder concentration or performance?

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I, like many computer programmers, love to listen to music while I work. I have always believed that music helps me stay focused and motivated, and improves my performance on many types of tasks, espescially "busywork". However my company's CEO disagrees with me, and believes that music is a distraction and leads to reduced productivity. Have any studies been done on whether listening to music while performing a task improves or hinders one's ability to perform that task? Is there a consensus in the cognitive science community regarding this?

It basically depends on how the particular musical performance is perceived by the listener. Cognitive process of listening seems to be comprise several layers, which follows a bottom-up direction.

First step is to decode relevant signal(s), among a complex package of sound. This is where the irrelevant noise is eliminated. Can music be eliminated in this level? Highly unlikely, but still possible. I do not know of a particular experiment but when the music is being played in a far destination, or with a low volume, or if the participant is highly concentrated to the task; then it may be eliminated in this step. But the key point in this step is that the term "noise" refers to aperiodic background sounds. Therefore, my first impression is that music, being periodical, must decrease the task performance. Cutler and Clifton (1999) gives an overview on the entire listening process. Second step is the grouping of different sound sources. There is also modelling studies that aims to explain this phenomenon (Bregman, 1990). Steps in listening continues further, but those steps are beyond the scope of this question.

But there are other studies also. Ylias and Heaven (2003) showed that the background noise negatively effects reading comprehension. So far so good. Cassidy and MacDonald (2007) showed that task performance on silence is greater than in low arousal music, and that is greater than noise, and that is even greater than high arousal music conditions. This is interesting, because it now introduces the affective state of the listener into the equation, which makes it a lot more difficult to handle. Another result is that the effect of the noise here is comparable to the effect of background music. But we have to note that the details of the noise in this experiment is not given in detail, only commented as "the everyday noise". It would be more conclusive if we just know whether it is the background sound of a television (periodic) or a traffic noise (aperiodic).

Combining these references, I cannot easily conclude that music is taken as a "noise". It seems that music reduces the task performance, by negatively affecting a later step in the listening process.

Ending note: There are several semiformal-informal studies on the web also. They study directly the "work/office performance", therefore I must say that they lack a little bit of a controlled environment. In such environments we can even confidently say that music improves our performance in particular situations. But what we miss is that office environments comprise several unhandled parameters that makes it hard for scientific experimental setup (i.e. listening music may improve the performance if your office mates chit chat next to you).

Ending note 2: I was interested in this topic a time ago. So I welcome more recent references or comments.

Cutler, A., & Clifton, C. (1999). Comprehending spoken language: A blueprint of the listener. The neurocognition of language, 123-166.
Bregman, A. S. (1984, July). Auditory scene analysis. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Pattern Recognition (pp. 168-175).
Ylias, G., & Heaven, P. C. (2003). The influence of distraction on reading comprehension: a Big Five analysis. Personality and individual differences, 34(6), 1069-1079.
Cassidy, G., & MacDonald, R. A. (2007). The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 35(3), 517-537.

As mentioned in a recent study by Thompson et al. (2012), there are two perspectives which account for the effects of background music on reading comprehension specifically (but as I argue later, these seem generalizable): the Cognitive-Capacity hypothesis and the Arousal-Mood hypothesis.

In short, the potential cost of background music listening for reading comprehension is that it places demands on attention. The potential benefit of background music listening is that it can enhance arousal levels and mood. The overall effect of background music on task performance may be a balance between these costs and benefits.

Drawing from multitasking literature, one would expect that depending on the cognitive requirements of the task you are performing, it might be possible that certain music is either appropriate or not. The ACT-R architecture (Anderson. J. R., 2007) assumes "the human cognitive architecture consists of a set of largely independent modules associated with different brain regions". E.g. vision, audition, manual control and speech. Although all modules can operate in parallel, each module can only serve one task at a time. Some music (e.g. vocal) may cause more capacity interference when tasks compete for limited resources.

Thompson et al. (2012) investigate specifically the effect of tempo and intensity of background music on a reading comprehension task, but provide a nice review of earlier studies. Check out the full paper (PDF). Their findings indicate…

[… ] that listening to background instrumental music is most likely to disrupt reading comprehension when the music is fast and loud. Music listening may consume more of listeners' finite attentional resources when it comprises a greater number of auditory events per unit time that are difficult to ignore because of greater intensity. [… ] Music that was slow and/or soft had no significant detrimental effects on reading comprehension, [… ]

Although reporting on an overall null effect, an older meta-analysis by Kämpfe et al. (2010) had a conflicting conclusion:

[… ] a comparison of studies that examined background music compared to no music indicates that background music disturbs the reading process, has some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact on emotional reactions and improves achievements in sports. A comparison of different types of background music reveals that the tempo of the music influences the tempo of activities that are performed while being exposed to background music.

As proposed by Kämpfe et al. (2010), and indicated by the results of Thompson et al., such interference effects are dependent on the structural characteristics of the music.

Overall it seems not all music has been shown to be detrimental as background music, but fast and loud music is more likely to disrupt ongoing tasks. To my knowledge no more detailed studies have been done which incorporate both type of tasks and different types of music. The question also arises to which degree these studies capture longitudinal effects in a real world environment with more complex tasks.

Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Letnic, A. K. (2012). Fast and loud background music disrupts reading comprehension. Psychology of Music, 40(6), 700-708.
Anderson, J. R. (2007). How can the human mind occur in the physical universe?. Oxford University Press.
Kämpfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2010). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music, 0305735610376261.

I realise this is anecdotal, but the answer to this does vary between people. My wife likes to have nothing to listen to while studying or concentrating. I like to have the TV on normally, or Chill Radio, whereas by youngest son has metal music on - not what most people would consider conducive the thought of any sort.

I understand that my wife finds that music or sounds are distracting - she needs to put effort into focussing. I, OTOH, find that the sounds help my focus, but eliminating other distractions - becasue I am in control of the sounds, they are not distracting. Youngest son enjoys the music, so for him it is just pleasant background to studying. Incidentally, my wife and I differ on having a tickign clock in the bedrooom too - she cannot stand it, whereas I fid it soothing and calming, and helps me get to sleep.

I am sure that I have seem studies that back up these sorts of differences, and that they are about differences in the way we think and process information. Cannot find anythig ATM though.

Music Helps You Heal

A study from Austria’s General Hospital of Salzburg found that patients recovering from back surgery had increased rates of healing and reported less pain when music was incorporated into the standard rehabilitation process.

“Music is an important part of our physical and emotional well-being, ever since we were babies in our mother’s womb listening to her heartbeat and breathing rhythms.” – Lead clinical psychologist of Austria General, Franz Wendtner.

Music connects with the automatic nervous system (brain function, blood pressure and heartbeat) and the limbic system (feelings and emotions).

When slow music is played, the bodily reaction follows suit– the heart blow slows down and blood pressure drops. This causes the breath to slow, which helps release tension in the neck, shoulders, stomach and back. Listening to slow or calming music on a regular basis can help our bodies relax, which over time, means less pain and faster recovery time.

Finnish researchers conducted a similar study, but with stroke patients. They found that if stroke patients listened to music for a couple of hours a day, their verbal memory and focused attention recovered better and they had a more positive mood than patients who did not listen to anything or who listened to audio books.

These findings have led to a clinical recommendation for stroke patients: everyday music listening during early stroke recovery offers a valuable addition to the patients’ care by providing an “individually targeted, easy-to-conduct and inexpensive means to facilitate cognitive and emotional recovery,” says Teppo Särkämö, author of the study.

With brain-imaging techniques, such as functional MRIs, music is increasingly being used in therapy for brain-related injuries and diseases. Brain scans have proven that music and motor control share circuits, so music can improve movement for those with Parkinson’s disease and for individuals recovering from a stroke. Neurologic music therapy should become part of rehabilitative care, according to this group of doctors. They believe that future findings may well indicate that music should be included on the list of therapies and rehabilitation for many disorders.

Bottom Line: Adding music to a standard rehabilitative process helps patients heal.

Can listening to background music improve children's behaviour and performance in mathematics?

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference
(September 11-14 1997: University of York)

Historically, there have been many claims regarding the beneficial effects of music on behaviour and development but there has been little empirical work to verify them. Two studies are reported here, the first in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, the second with year 6, main stream primary children. There was a significant improvement in the behaviour of the EBD children when background music was playing. Observers also noted improved co-operation and a reduction in aggression in the lessons immediately following the intervention. Significant improvement in mathematics performance was found for all the children.

The effect of music on the moods, emotions and behaviour of both individuals and groups has been noted throughout history. A number of writers have discussed the functions of music (e.g. Merriam, 1964 Gaston, 1968), while others have researched both the physiological and psychological effects (see Radocy & Boyle, 1988 for a review). As a result of this research music has come to be considered as lying on a continuum from highly stimulating and invigorating to soothing or calming (Gaston, 1968). There is certainly strong evidence from a variety of sources that people respond differently to stimulative and sedative music (Radocy and Boyle, 1988). However, within the field of education there have been few studies investigating the non-contingent use of music in influencing the behaviour and performance of children.

Hall (1952), exploring the possible uses of music in schools found that performance on reading comprehension tests was significantly improved when background music was playing. 58% of the 245 8th and 9th graders taking part in the study showed an increase in scores on the Nelson Silent Reading Tests. There were also 'settling down periods' at the beginning of the morning and afternoon sessions and a mid-afternoon fatigue period when music was of greatest assistance. Her study also suggested that the major portion of the aid given by background music was an increase in accuracy and that those students who were 'below average in intelligence and achievement' benefitted more from the presence of background music than those above average, suggesting that this could be because these students were more in need of an aid to concentration.

In a smaller scale study of four hyperactive pupils, Scott (1970) found that the introduction of background music into the classroom setting had a calming influence. Comparison of performance on an arithmetic task across four conditions, the normal classroom environment, the introduction of background music into the normal classroom, children sitting in three sided booths and children sitting in the booths with background music revealed that the children were most productive when background music was introduced into the normal classroom setting.

Recent research by Savan (in press) demonstrated improved behaviour and a greater concentration on school work when background music was played during the science lessons of 10 children with learning and emotional and behavioural difficulties. Savan hypothesised that many of their problems stemmed from poor physical co-ordination and that stimulation of the brain with sounds of particular frequencies could improve this. During each science lesson, the children, who attended a mainstream school, were played music by Mozart as this was believed to have a high level of sounds of the appropriate frequency. Savan hypothesised that this would stimulate the brain to produce a chemical, probably an endorphin, which would lower blood pressure. The effect of lowering blood pressure results in decreasing amounts of chemicals such as adrenalin and corticosteroids in the blood. By decreasing these chemicals, the whole body metabolism is lowered producing a "calming" effect. To assess the extent of physiological changes in the children measures of systolic and diastolic blood pressure, pulse rate and temperature were made before, during and after the lessons when the music was being played. All showed a significant decrease when background music was played, lending support to Savan's hypothesis.

These studies suggest that the use of music in the classroom may be beneficial to pupils' performance. Giles (1991) also suggests that most pupils function very well with music in the background and the right music at the right time can make them less stressed, more relaxed, happier and more productive. She found that the most effective music for improving children's performance was what they liked, providing that it did not overly excite them.

The aims of the studies reported here are to assess if the introduction of background music will improve performance in mathematics in two educational settings, a school for emotional and behavioural difficulties and a mainstream primary school.

The pupils were a group of children aged between 9 and 10 (8 boys and 2 girls) attending a day school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Most of the children were attending for 4 or 5 days each week. One child was attending for only 3 days each week. Observation of the group revealed a high frequency of disruptive behaviour such as tantrums, crying, destructive behaviour, overt verbal and physical aggression and general over activity. None of the children had any diagnosis of brain injury and all were reported to have IQS within normal limits.

The music for the study was selected from that suggested by Giles (1991) as 'mood calming'. Specific pieces were chosen by playing short excerpts (60-90 seconds) to a group of 26 pupils attending a day school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. The pupils were asked to assess each piece of music on three dimensions happy/sad, calming/exciting, and like/dislike. The criterion for inclusion of any individual piece of music in the experiment was that it should be interpreted as calming by the majority of the respondents.

A standard Sony camcorder was mounted on a tripod in the corner of the classroom to record each experimental session. A booklet of arithmetic problems within the child's level of achievement was prepared for each child. The music was played on a good quality cassette player.

The design of the study was counterbalanced with each pupil acting as his/her own control. The first four trials were completed without background music, followed by four trials with background music. After a gap of one week the procedure was repeated in reverse order for three trial under each condition (See Table 1).

The trials took place at the same time each day immediately after lunch. To counteract the effects of practice and boredom with the task, the arithmetic task was changed for phase two. The new problems remained within each child's level of competence.

Before each session the pupils were requested to sit quietly and complete as many maths problems correctly as possible in a given time span. They were asked not to speak to the other children or move around the room. If a teacher's help was required they were asked to raise their hand and wait until they were asked to speak.

The pupils were reminded of the rules at regular intervals. If one of the pupils broke a rule they would initially be given a reminder e.g. 'You are expected to sit quietly' or 'You are expected to remain in your seat'. If the behaviour was so extreme or persistent that it gave the remainder of the group little realistic chance of settling to their tasks then the pupil would be told that they would be asked to leave the room if they continued. If the pupil was removed from the room then their scores for that session were omitted.

For each session two measures were recorded the number of correctly completed maths problems and the number of times rules were broken (10 second interval sampling).

Rule breaking behaviour consisted of:

* addressing a teacher without first raising a hand and waiting to be spoken to

* any comments to other children

* leaving seat without first gaining permission

* hitting or making threatening gestures

* making excessive noise non-verbally (e.g banging something)

The explicit criteria as outlined above enabled observers to be trained easily and led to very high levels of inter-rater reliability. The video sequences were analysed by three observers, all teachers at the school. They were allocated pupils to observe for each session. In every second session a cross observation was conducted as a simple running check of observer reliability.

The main findings for individual pupils are summarised in Figures 1 and 2. The mean score for mathematics performance with background music was 38.5 (SD 15.1) and without background music 21.5 (SD 8.91). A repeated measures t-test revealed that the differences were significant at the .002 level (t= -4.7, df = 8).

In relation to rule breaking the mean scores were 17.3 ( SD 6.07) for background music and 21.2 (SD 6.09) without background music. This finding was not significantly different (t = 1.9, df = 8, p = .09). Examination of the data revealed that the initial session of the first trial was largely responsible for the lack of difference, this being the time when the pupils were adjusting to having background music. With this initial session taken out of the analysis a paired t-test revealed a significant difference between the two conditions at the .001 level (t=4.89, df = 8), with significantly fewer instances of rule breaking when background music was present.

Correlations carried out between the number of completed maths problems and the number of rule breaking incidents revealed a significant negative association, r = -.47, p = .036. This negative association suggests that the improvement in mathematics performance, in part, was related to the improvement in behaviour, which itself seemed to be related to the influence of the music.

Further analysis, comparing individual sessions in each trial, revealed that in 4 out of the 7 sessions there was a significant positive affect on mathematics performance when background music was used. Even where the differences were non-significant the effects of the music were always positive. The background music at no time had a detrimental effect on performance. The differences in behaviour were much less marked, although it was only in the very first session using music where there was a negative effect on behaviour over the whole group of children. In 3 out of 7 sessions there was an improvement in behaviour with background music and in 3 there was no significant difference. This suggests that, after the initial settling down session, there were no negative effects on either behaviour or performance with background music playing.

Overall, the findings suggest that the performance and behaviour of emotionally disturbed children within the special school classroom may be enhanced by the introduction of background music. On the basis of these findings it was decided to undertake a similar study in a mainstream primary school to establish if the effects could be replicated with children without Special Educational Needs.

31 children took part in the study. They were aged 10 to 11 in year 6 in a junior school in the London area. They were randomly allocated to two groups. The teacher reported that in maths lessons they were normally quiet and industrious. They had also had some previous experience of working with background music in creative subjects.

To ensure continuity with the previous study the same music was used. The class teacher selected the arithmetic problems to be undertaken to consolidate work already covered in the syllabus and to be within each pupil's level of competence. The problems all concerned fractions.

The mathematics sessions took place during the first lesson of each day on four consecutive days. For the first fifteen minutes of each period, Group B (no music) completed their arithmetic work in one area of the room. This was followed by general mathematics work. During this time Group A worked on general mathematics tasks. Later in the session, group A (music), completed their arithmetic work for 15 minutes while group B continued with general mathematics. This pattern was repeated over the four sessions with the order alternated so that no group had a practice advantage. The pupils were instructed to work independently on their arithmetic work without talking to other pupils and to sit quietly and complete correctly as many of the maths problems as possible in the fifteen minutes. If the pupil required teacher instruction to complete the work his/her score was discounted from the analysis. In each session, for each individual, the number of attempted maths problems, the number correctly completed and the accuracy rate was recorded.

An examination of the mean number of problems completed during the 15 minute session revealed that the mean for those listening to the background music was 34.9 (SD 7.7) problems and without background music 27.3 (SD 7.8). This difference was statistically significant (p = .02). When performance was considered for each day separately this pattern was repeated (see Table 2).

Mean Number of Problems Completed with and without Music

When the number of correct problems was considered the overall mean with background music was 27.8 (SD = 7.5) and without background music 23.5 (SD = 2.8). This was not statistically significant (p = 0.12). However there was some variability within the sessions (see Table 3).

Mean number of problems solved correctly with and without music

A percentage accuracy level was established by taking the number of correct responses and dividing them by the number of attempted responses. The percentage accuracy rate with background music was 84% and without background music 80%. This difference was not statistically significant (see Table 4). However, there was a significant difference in the variance of the two sets of scores. With background music the standard deviation was 12.7, without background music it was 5.57 (p = .025). There was considerable individual variation in the level of accuracy when music was being played.

Percentage Accuracy Level with and without Music

This small study demonstrates that background music can enhance the speed of working on mathematics problems. As a result of this the students tend to get more problems correct but their overall accuracy level is not improved.

The findings from these studies suggest that performance on solving maths problems is affected by having music playing in the background. All of the children with emotional and behavioural difficulties performed better on the maths task when background music was present, although the extent of the effects varied between pupils. The pupils who benefitted most were those whose difficulties were associated with constant stimulus seeking and overactivity, closely resembling the 'hyperactive' syndrome (pupils 3, 6, 8 and 9). These pupils were disruptive but not perceived to be suffering from any deep emotional trauma. The background music may have served as sufficient stimulus to satisfy their stimulus hunger whilst not interfering with their ability to concentrate on the task. While the music did not appear to change their rule breaking behaviour they were more often talking while working rather than talking instead of working. Perhaps stimulus replacement rather than stimulus reduction is effective in helping children with such difficulties.

The pupils for whom the background music had least effect (1, 2, 5 and 10) were all reported by the school staff to have deep seated emotional problems stemming from an acknowledged history of abuse, both physical and emotional, separation and loss. The behaviour of these children was described as driven by internal emotional states being unpredictable and difficult to manage. These children did show improved performance with the background music, although the effects were less marked. Perhaps the changes in their performance occurred as a result of the reduction in distractions from the other pupils who were concentrating better.

The findings in relation to rule breaking are less clear. This may be due to limitations in the assessment of rule breaking. To facilitate ease of identification and recording, and high inter-rater reliability, the scoring system was simple. This meant qualitative variation in rule breaking was not recorded. For instance, if children were observed talking this was counted as rule breaking even if the nature of the interaction varied from mutual praise to belligerent abuse. A more sophisticated analysis might have taken this into account. The constraints of the recording equipment and the difficulties of training observers made this impossible. However, the observers did note a decrease in hostility when the background music was present, with children tending to show off the number of problems they had completed and attempting to help others rather than denigrating performance and swapping insults. The observers, also teachers, commented on the greater degree of co-operation observed following sessions with background music present, with children offering to collect pencils, rearrange chairs, etc. While this has not been substantiated empirically in this study, Fried and Berkowitz (1979) found that university students who had listened to calming music were significantly more helpful afterwards than those listening to aversive, stimulating or no music.

The study with the children from mainstream education also revealed improved performance when listening to music. This seemed to be due largely to an increase in work rate. In only one session was there any evidence of an improvement in the number of correct answers and there was no difference in the percentage accuracy of the two groups. The music seemed to facilitate an increased rate of working suggesting that its effect related to maintaining an optimal level of arousal as specified in the Yerkes Dodson law. The large variation in accuracy in those pupils working with music playing in the background suggests considerable individual diversity in the impact of the music. This individual variability may be related to personality factors, i.e. levels of introversion/extroversion, the relative difficulty of the task for each child, or levels of anxiety. Oaksford et al. (1996) have also suggested that positive mood states reduce performance on tasks requiring cognitive reasoning. The variability in accuracy scores might therefore be explained by the music inducing a "cheerful" state of mind in some children whose cognitive reasoning is then affected negatively.

Together, these studies demonstrate that playing background music, which pupils themselves have rated as "relaxing", has positive effects on pupils' performance on mathematics problems. These effects are in evidence for children aged 10-11 years in mainstream school and for children in a school for emotional and behavioural difficulties. The reasons for the effects may be different for each group. Music may exert effects on arousal and mood or provide a source of distraction which ultimately facilitates resumed concentration on the task. The effects may be different for individual pupils and may also depend on the nature of the task undertaken.

These studies suggest that:

* the introduction of background music of a 'calming' nature into the classroom significantly improved the performance of a group of emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children on a maths task and led to a significant decrease in rule breaking behaviour over the period of the study

* the introduction of 'calming' music had the greatest effect on those children whose behaviour could be described as hyperactive.

* the introduction of calming background music produced an increased rate of work on mathematics problems in children in year 6 of mainstream primary school. There was no significant difference in the accuracy rate of those who worked with and without music

* although there was an overall improvement when background music was playing there appeared to be considerable individual variation

* the means by which the music achieves these effects may be multifaceted.

Fried, R & Berkowitz, L. (1979) Music hath charms. and can influence helpfulness. Journal of Applied Social Science, 9, 199-208.

Gaston, E.T. (Ed) (1968) Music in Therapy . New York: MacMillan

Giles, M. (1991) A little background music, please. Special Children, 51.

Hall, J. (1952) The effect of background music on the reading comprehension of 278 eighth and ninth grade students. Journal of Educational Research, 45, 451-458.

Merriam, A.P. (1964) The Anthropology of Music. Northwestern University Press.

Oaksford, M., Morris, F., Grainger, B. & Williams, J.M.G. (1996) Mood reasoning and central executive processes, Journal of experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory and Cognition, 22(2), 477-493.

Radocy, R.E. & Boyle, J.D. (1988) Psychological Foundations of Musical Behaviour Springfield, Illinois: Charles Thomas

Savan, A. ( in press) A study of the effect of background music on the behaviour and physiological responses of children with special educational needs. Education Review

Scott, T. (1970) The use of music to reduce hyperactivity in children, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 4, 677-680.

What Is Brainwave Entrainment? (Do Binaural Beats Work?)

Brainwave entrainment, sometimes mistaken as "brainwave entertainment," is the process of causing a person&aposs brain to enter a particular state in which his or her brainwaves match the frequency of an external stimulus. Often, binaural beats are used as that stimulus.

A binaural beat is basically just an auditory illusion that is created when two tones&mdasheach one with a different frequency&mdashare played into the separate ears of a listener at the same time. In addition to the tone on the left and the tone on the right, the listener (who is wearing headphones) perceives a pulse in between them. That pulse has its own tone and frequency and is known as the binaural beat. A similar effect happens when two different frequencies are passed through a single speaker and a person listens without headphones. In that case, the pulses that are perceived are called monaural beats.

Many companies sell audio products with binaural beats that can supposedly change the frequency of your brainwaves in order to help you relax or focus. Some of them even overlay study music. Alpha waves or beta waves are often what their binaural beats are trying to induce in listeners&apos brains. That&aposs because those waves tend to be present during states of relaxation or concentration. Most brainwaves fall into the following categories:

  • Delta waves: These brainwaves are usually present during dreamless sleep. They are represented by frequencies from about 0.1 to 4 Hz (i.e., cycles per second).
  • Theta waves: When a person is drowsy, sleepy, or in deep meditation, these waves are typically present. Their frequency range is generally between 4 and 8 Hz.
  • Alpha waves: Study after study has shown that alpha brainwaves tend to be present during states of relaxation, mental reflection, and creativity. They range from about 8 to 12 Hz.
  • Beta waves: These brainwaves tend to occur when a person is concentrating, intensely focusing on something, or feeling alert or unsettled. Their frequencies range from about 12 to 30 Hz or above.
  • Gamma waves: At frequencies of about 40 Hz and higher, a person may experience moments of joyful insight or deep discovery and understanding.

So, are binaural beats safe? And do they actually work? Contrary to some ill-informed reporting by certain media outlets, binaural beats are most likely safe. They are not "digital drugs" that can make you high or cause any kind of "alpha waves overdose." In fact, there is very little credible, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to suggest that binaural beats affect the human brain in any significant way.

To be sure, there is a ton of online hype about binaural beats, study methods involving them, and the potential for alpha wave music to help students concentrate. But you won&apost find much verifiable scientific substance to back up the bold claims made by many companies who are cashing in on the trend of trying to induce beta or alpha waves for studying. That&aposs why it may be best to save your money.

On the other hand, some students claim to have experienced positive changes while using binaural beats. Focus and a sense of calm are just two of the many purported effects. So maybe binaural beats work in a way that scientists still don&apost understand. Or maybe those students are experiencing results thanks to the power of suggestion, which is a real, scientifically valid phenomenon.

Either way, you don&apost have to spend money in order to give binaural beats a try. Plenty of websites offer free online streams or downloads.

Do Or Don't: Studying While Listening To Music

Second semester is well underway, which means midterms and other tests are looming ahead in the not-too-distant future and that it’s time to once again question how studying while listening to music can affect a student’s studying efficiency.

Researchers and college students have often wondered whether listening to music has negative or positive effects on the student’s studying habits and whether studying while listening to music is a “do” or “don’t.”

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Studies have shown that listening to music before studying or performing a task can be beneficial as it improves attention, memory, and even your ability to do mental math as well as helping lessen depression and anxiety.

Many researchers, as well as students, who think listening to music helps memory have called the practice the “Mozart Effect.” Of course, nowadays many students are not actually listening to Mozart, but pop or other music, so the effect may not be the same.

These studies and researchers seem to indicate that music can actually help you study and those who listen to music while studying may actually be better off for it.

However, there have also been several studies that have shown that music can actually have negative impacts on your studying effectiveness — particularly when it comes to memorizing something in order.

Dr. Nick Perham’s 2010 study, “Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect,” explored how music can interfere with short-term memory potential.

“We found that listening to liked or disliked music was exactly the same, and both were worse than the quiet control condition,” Perham discovered. ”Both impaired performance on serial-recall tasks.”

Listening to music may diminish your cognitive abilities in these situations because when you’re trying to memorize things in order, you can get thrown off and confused by the various words and notes in the song playing in the background, Perham theorized.

Stanford University professor Clifford Nass had similar thoughts.

“Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you’re writing or reading. Probably less of an effect on math, if you’re not using the language parts of your brain,” Nass said. “In my day, there was no way you could take music to the library. When [today's students] go to the library to study, they bring their noise, and music, with them.”

Today, it’s easier than ever to bring your music with you wherever you go as music has become inherently portable. We listen to music while we walk, cook, drive — when we want to feel happy or relaxed. Music has become a fundamental part of our lives, which is why students are so eager to know whether it will negatively or positively impact their studying.

Because music can impact and regulate your mood and the best mood to study in is a more relaxed mood, choosing music that helps you relax but also with enough beat or rhythm to ensure you don’t zone out while studying is crucial. But music that’s too loud or with too much of an upbeat tempo can also be distracting, so having a playlist or specific artist you turn to for studying music can really help.

If you’re the type of person who has more difficulty multitasking and is easily distracted, listening to music while studying may just cause your attention to drift to the music rather than help you concentrate on your material.

If you’re really set on listening to music while studying but know your focus will probably end up divided, choose classical music or more acoustic music with minimal words to distract you. Movie scores, which typically consist of a bunch of orchestral pieces, may also be good background music for you to study to.

So basically, the final decision about studying while listening to music is up to you — do you feel you concentrate better with Taylor Swift or Hozier singing in the background? Or do you find yourself thinking of the lyrics to the song rather than what you’re supposed to be studying?

Music’s effects on study habits will vary from person to person, and can also be affected by what you’re listening to — the genre of the music, how loud it is, etc.

Personally, when I need some background music to study to, I’ll usually make a more acoustic playlist consisting of songs by Joshua Radin, Cary Brothers, and Ed Sheeran, with some of The Fray and Goo Goo Dolls thrown in, too.

But in order for you to study the most productively, you need to figure out the effect music has on your studying ability, and then tailor your studying playlist — be it silence or music — to best suit your needs and efficiency.

Music With Lyrics

Music with lyrics activates the language-processing centers of the brain, and the University of Phoenix advises that this can be distracting. Particularly if you're reading or studying subjects within the humanities, the act of processing musical lyrics as you try to process the words you're studying can make studying more challenging. Students who listen to music with lyrics may have more difficulty concentrating and may struggle more to recall the information they've learned.


The aim of this study was to investigate how exposing subjects to varying auditory backgrounds while they engaged in a memory task affected later recognition performance. Response times were significantly faster and the recognition rate was higher for faces that were studied either in complete silence or in the presence of emotionally touching background music. Behavioral data demonstrated a higher recognition rate for new faces (correctly rejected as unfamiliar in 77.3% of hits with a 22.7% rate of error) than old faces (correctly recognized as familiar in 55.5% of hits with a 44.5% rate of error). This pattern is in accordance with previous literature and it indicates that regardless of the large number of faces that were presented (N = 448), participants were able to accurately reject approximately 4 out of 5 new faces on the basis of a lack of familiarity. In a previously conducted electrophysiological study 39 , the recognition rate of 200 total faces was compared to that of 100 new faces and produced 79.3% correct hits for the former and 66.3% for the latter. Similarly, Yovel and Paller 40 obtained hit rates of 87.8% for new faces and 65.3% for old faces. In the ERP study that was conducted by Currand and Hancock 41 and included 360 faces, the memory recognition rates were approximately 90% for new faces and 81% for old faces. Considering that there were a greater number of stimuli in the present study, the performance was satisfactory, especially with respect to new faces. Overall, the recognition rate for old faces was a little bit lower in this than in other studies not featuring an interfering auditory background. Learning conditions were purposely made difficult to overload cognitive and perceptual systems and to determine whether the effects of listening to music and rain on visual learning were disruptive or enhancing.

Overall, the results of this study demonstrated that subjects more accurately encoded faces while listening to emotionally touching music compared to listening to rain or joyful music, similarly to conditions of silence. The most plausible explanation for this enhancement (or lack of interference) is that listening to emotionally touching music increased the arousal of the listeners, which was indicated by their increased heart rates. However, the arousal hypothesis does not hold true in this case per se because heart rates were also increased while listening to joyful music (which was associated with an increased number of facial recognition errors). Furthermore, listening to music generally tended to increase blood pressure compared to listening to rain sounds. The significant cost of listening to joyful music, which had the same intensity (in dB) as the emotionally touching music and rain sounds, must therefore not be interpreted as a lack of arousal activation but rather as lacking the beneficial effect that is imparted by musically-induced emotions on the ability to encode faces. Therefore, a hypothesis can be proposed that suggests that listening to emotionally touching music leads to emotionally-driven audiovisual encoding that strengthens memory engrams for faces that are visualized in this context, whereas listening to either rain or joyful music produces interfering effects by overloading perceptual channels during face encoding, as predicted by numerous studies that have described the persistent negative effects of listening to music on memory performance 1,4,13,14,15,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25 . Indeed, according to Jancke 42 (2008), “nostalgic music” has a strong influence on episodic memory. A recent study by Gold et al. 43 investigated the effects of music on mnemonic capacity. In this study, music that was considered to be pleasant by subjects was contrasted with emotionally neutral music both types of music were listened to by musician and non-musician subjects. During music listening, participants were engaged in encoding and later recalling Japanese ideograms. The results showed that subjects with musical expertise exhibited better performance on memory tasks while listening to neutral music, whereas subjects with no musical training (as in our study) more successfully memorized the studied ideograms while listening to emotionally touching music. These group differences might be interpreted by assuming that musicians dedicate more cognitive and attentional resources to the technical analysis of a preferred song and its musical properties. Conversely, the better performance at ideogram recall that was exhibited by non-musically trained participants as they listened to emotionally pleasant music might be due to increased attentional and arousal levels that were stimulated by the music. Indeed, numerous studies support the hypothesis that musical perception is able to modify how the brain processes visual information, which is the same principle that underlies the concept of the movie soundtrack 44,45,46,47,48 . In this case, music can strongly influence the interpretation of a film narrative by becoming integrated into the memory along with visual information and therefore it provides continuation, directs attention, induces mood, communicates meaning, cues memory, creates a sense of reality and contributes to the aesthetic experience 44 . Furthermore, music can convey various types of emotional information via its harmony, rhythm, melody, timbre and tonality, which can inspire multiple types of emotions in the listener, both simultaneously and in succession 49 .

The ability of emotional sounds to influence visual perception has been shown experimentally for stimuli such as complex IAPS (International Affective Picture System) scenes 50,51 , photographs of faces and landscapes 52 , emotional facial expressions 53 and schematics of faces embedded in noise 54 . In particular, with regard to faces, it has been shown that subjects were more accurate at detecting sub-threshold happy faces while listening to happy music and vice versa for sad faces and sad music. This suggests that music is able to modulate visual perception by altering early visual cortex activity and sensory processing in a binding modality 54 . In a separate study 53 , participants rated photographs of crying, smiling, angry and yawning faces while concurrently being exposed to happy, angry, sad and calm music, or no music and the results indicated that the participants made more favorable judgments about a crying face when listening to either sad or calm background music. Based on the current literature, it can be hypothesized that listening to music, especially emotionally touching music, might alter the visual perception of faces by making perceived faces (that were balanced for intensity and valence as uni-sensory visual stimuli) more emotionally charged and arousing to the viewer via a mechanism of audiovisual encoding. The higher arousal value of faces that were perceived in the presence of emotionally touching music (and to a lesser extent joyful music) was indicated by the increased heart rates of the participants that were measured under this condition. The result that higher hit rates were achieved with respect to emotive faces when participants were listening to emotionally touching music is compatible with current neuroscientific literature on facial memory. For example, untrustworthy faces are better remembered than trustworthy faces 55 disgusting faces are better remembered than non-disgusting faces 56 and faces expressing negative emotions are better remembered than neutral faces 57,58 . It is thought that this type of enhanced facial memory is due to a more general advantage that is imparted by remembering faces that are representative of negative or threatening contexts and it is associated with increased activity in the amygdala, hippocampus, extrastriate and frontal and parietal cortices during facial encoding 58 . A similar phenomenon might occur when faces are perceived in an arousing or emotional context (e.g., in a thriller movie with a scary soundtrack or in our study on listening to emotionally touching music). In others words, music might strengthen memory engrams by enhancing affective coding and enabling multimodal, redundant audiovisual memory encoding.

Although auditory background heavily affected memory accuracy and heart rate, it appeared to have little effect on blood pressure, except for a slight tendency to increase it during music listening. With regard to the effect of music listening on autonomic responses (blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate), the literature is very conflicting. Although it has been shown that listening to music can reduce pain intensity and systolic blood pressure in patients during postoperative recovery 59 and can reduce stress levels and heart rate in patients with coronary heart disease and cancer 60 , a reduction in heart rate or blood pressure caused by listening to music has not been demonstrated in healthy controls. For example, in a study conducted by Radstaak and colleagues 31 , healthy participants had to perform a mental arithmetic task while being exposed to harassment to induce stress. Afterward, participants were assigned to one of several “recovery” conditions in which they either (1) listened to self-chosen relaxing or happy music, listened to an audio book, or sat in silence. Systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and heart rate were continuously monitored. The results indicated that although listening to both relaxing and happy music improved subjects moods, it did not diminish stress-enhanced systolic blood pressure. Therefore, mental relaxation was not associated with an improvement in autonomic parameters. In another interesting study 32 , systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BPsys, BPdia) were monitored as participants sat in silence and as they listened to 180-second-long recordings of two different “relaxing” and two different “aggressive” classical music excerpts. The results showed that listening to relaxing classical music and listening to aggressive classical music both increased BPsys, whereas autonomic modulation was lower under conditions of silence. Furthermore, in a study by Tan et al. 33 , the effect of relaxing music on heart rate recovery after exercise was investigated. Twenty-three healthy young volunteers underwent treadmill exercise and were then assessed for heart rate recovery and subjected to saliva analysis. The participants were either exposed to sedating music or to silence during the recovery period immediately following the exercise. No differences were found between exposure to music or silence with respect to heart rate recovery, resting pulse rate, or salivary cortisol. Overall, it appeared that although listening to music reduced anxiety under certain experimental settings, it did not seem to strongly influence hemodynamic parameters, except for a tendency to increase systolic blood pressure, which is consistent with the results of the present study.

In this study, accuracy and RT data indicated that participants committed more errors and were much slower when learning occurred under a background of rain sounds (vs. emotional music or silence). Although it is thought that listening to natural sounds (e.g., sounds of a rippling ocean, a small stream, soft wind, or a bird twittering) may produce relaxing and anxiety-reducing effects 61 , it has not been demonstrated that benefits to the learning process are imparted by listening to such sounds while studying and memory encoding. For example, a study that compared listening to silence versus listening to music or rain sounds during a backward digit span task found that auditory background produced no effect on performance whatsoever 30 . A study on the perception of white noise 62 , which shares several auditory properties with rain sounds (expect for artificiality), showed that listening to natural sounds (a running horse) and music tones decreased the ability of subjects to recall memories of scenes from their daily lives (compared to a condition of silence), whereas listening to white noise improved memory performance by improving connectivity between brain regions that are associated with visuospatial processing, memory and attention modulation. These results can be interpreted by assuming that the perception of recognizable and structured auditory objects (natural or musical sounds) interferes with memory processing, which is in agreement with the cognitive capacity model 4 . Conversely, listening to unstructured white noise does not produce such interference and alternatively increases cerebral arousal levels, in agreement with the arousal hypothesis 5 . In this context, the rain sounds and types of music that were used in the present investigation overloaded the perceptual systems of the participants, as shown by their reduced levels of performance on the assigned tasks compared to a condition of silence. However, listening to emotionally touching music benefitted concurrent emotional processing (associated with significantly increased heart rate), in agreement with a study conducted by Gold et al. 43 and Quarto et al. 63 In support of this hypothesis, several studies have provided evidence that listening to pleasant or emotionally arousing music can increase the heart rate of the listener 64,65,66 . Overall, the data indicate that perception of emotionally touching music can modify visual perception by binding visual inputs with emotionally charged musical information, resulting in deeper memory encoding.

One of the possible study’s limits is the existence of a culturally-mediated difference in the aesthetic musical preference between the judges and naïve participants who listened to the selected pieces. Indeed, while music evaluation resulting in the “touching and “joyful” characterization was performed by professional musicians that, as a result of their specific profession, have developed a quite positive aesthetic preference for classical music, naïve subjects (selected on the basis of their limited interest in music of whatever style) might have potentially found it boring or not interesting. Although aesthetics is based on liking or not an artwork, we assumed that touching and joyful music excerpts carried in their compositional structure some universal properties able to affect auditory processing of people not particularly skilled in music processing. The data strongly support this initial assumption, that music aesthetical preference is not only culturally, but also biologically based.


The reason that the phenomenon is attributed to Mozart principally then is because of the original study published in Nature in 1933 by Shaw and Rauscher. Here Shaw and Rauscher fond that particular neurons fired in response to particular frequencies found in Mozart’s music which did seem to aid in spatial activities. The way this has been subsequently generalized and marketed however is of course a result of cunning marketing ploys rather than any concrete studies. The 1997 book by Don Campbell ‘The Mozart Effect’ for instance claims that Mozart can ‘heal the body’, ‘strengthen the mind’ and ‘unlock the creative spirit’. Of course there is no evidence that Mozart can ‘heal the body’ in any measurable way, other than helping to bring about a relaxed mental state. This did not stop Zell Miller, a Governor of Georgia in 1998, announcing that his state budget would include $105,000 to supply every child born with a CD of classical music.

In recent times however the effect has been viewed with more skepticism, and in 1999 a paper described the effects as being explained simply by ‘enjoyment arousal’ – that listening to the music simply improved mood and so performance. In the study he demonstrated that listening to passages from Stephen King could also help improve paper folding and cutting, and that only those who reported enjoying the Mozart had any positive effect. That said, a study in 2001 found that listening to one particular passage from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 could help to decrease epileptiform activity due to the tempo and structure.

Music can boost memory and mood

Dan Cohen watches Mary Lou Thompson, who has Alzheimer's, respond to the playlist he made for her.

Image: Photo Courtesy of BOND 360

By Dr. Anne Fabiny, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch

You may have seen the award-winning documentary film Alive Inside, which was released in 2014. It follows Dan Cohen, a social worker who is bringing music to people with dementia in nursing homes.

Cohen asked a documentary film maker to follow him around for three days to witness the astounding effect that music was having on the behavior, mood, and quality of life of patients who appeared to no longer have much of a connection to themselves and the world. The film maker was so moved and impressed that he followed Cohen for months and created this film.

Cohen's method is fairly simple. He asks a resident's family to list the songs or instrumental pieces the person once enjoyed. He then creates an individualized playlist on an MP3 player for the resident.

The music, which ranges from jazz to rock to classical, elicits surprising reactions. Some people, who had seemed unable to speak, proceed to sing and dance to the music, and others are able to recount when and where they had listened to that music. The music seems to open doors to the residents' memory vaults.

There is a growing body of evidence to explain why people in the movie come back to life and begin to feel like there former selves when they listen to their playlists. Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward. Two recent studies—one in the United States and the other in Japan—found that music doesn't just help us retrieve stored memories, it also helps us lay down new ones. In both studies, healthy elderly people scored better on tests of memory and reasoning after they had completed several weekly classes in which they did moderate physical exercise to musical accompaniment.

Researchers at the music and neuro-imaging laboratory at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have shown that singing lyrics can be especially helpful to people who are recovering from a stroke or brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the undamaged right side of the brain, people can learn to speak their thoughts by singing them first and gradually dropping the melody. Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords used this technique to learn to speak well enough to testify before a Congressional committee two years after a gunshot wound to her brain destroyed her ability to speak. Singing has also helped healthy people learn words and phrases faster.

To witness music therapy at work, go to the website of the Music and Memory Foundation,, and see what happens to one nursing home resident, Henry, as he listens to his music. You can also learn more about the movement that Dan Cohen has started and find out how you can get involved. And if you are caring for—or care about—someone with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, I guarantee it will inspire you to get an MP3 player and create a playlist for that person! It may also inspire you to make one for yourself, as well.

Does music really help you concentrate?

‘I won’t be able to focus if you turn that off,’ a gazillion teenagers have whined at their parents. Is it possible that they’re right?

‘The right music can hit the sweet spot between predictable and chaotic for which the brain has a strong preference.’ Illustration: Sophie Wolfson

‘The right music can hit the sweet spot between predictable and chaotic for which the brain has a strong preference.’ Illustration: Sophie Wolfson

Last modified on Wed 22 Feb 2017 17.46 GMT

M any people listen to music while they’re carrying out a task, whether they’re studying for an exam, driving a vehicle or even reading a book. Many of these people argue that background music helps them focus.

Why, though? When you think about it, that doesn’t make much sense. Why would having two things to concentrate on make you more focused, not less? Some people even go so far as to say that not having music on is more distracting. So what’s going on there?

It’s not clear why the brain likes music so much in the first place, although it clearly does. Interestingly, there’s a specific spectrum of musical properties that the brain prefers. Experiments by Maria Witek and colleagues reveal that there needs to be a medium level of syncopation in music to elicit a pleasure response and associated body movement in individuals. What this means in plain English is: music needs to be funky, but not too funky, for people to like it enough to make them want to dance.

Your own experience will probably back this up. Simple, monotonous beats, like listening to a metronome, aren’t really entertaining. They have low levels of syncopation and certainly don’t make you want to dance. In contrast, chaotic and unpredictable music, like free jazz, has high levels of syncopation, can be extremely off-putting and rarely, if ever, entices people to dance.

The middle ground (funk music like James Brown is what the experimenters reference most) hits the sweet spot between predictable and chaotic, for which the brain has a strong preference. Most modern pop falls somewhere within this range, no doubt.

Watch the video: How playing an instrument benefits your brain - Anita Collins (August 2022).