One thing that college students understand is the importance of optimizing study habits. With so much homework and studying to do, and such limited time to do it—especially after accounting for other time-consuming commitments such as clubs, volunteering, work and sports—dorm-dwellers have become veritable experts at finding fun ways to increase productivity.
Given the ability of music to stimulate both the right and left sides of the brain, it is no surprise that it has become one of the main conduits through which students fine-tune their cognitive performance. Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks to this practice. A recent experiment, conducted by Carol A. Smith and Larry W. Morris of Middle Tennessee State University, revealed that students who listened to their preferred type of lyrical music whilst taking a series of tests did not perform as well as did students who listened to sedative music. This is conjectured to be the result of the distracting nature of the lyrics of a familiar and preferred song, which can evoke emotions and memories and thus divert attention away from the task at hand.
Freshman Iman Ghosh, who enjoys listening to music while studying, confirms this phenomenon: “I listen to electronic music like techno, sometimes [I listen to] dubstep, but I only listen to music that is without words and singing, because if there’s words and singing I can’t concentrate.”
Freshman Sam Glotfelty has a similar experience: “Stuff with lyrics usually distracts me…sometimes classical music helps,” he says. However, that still doesn’t stop him from listening to hip hop and rap every now and then to liven up his studies.
Despite the similarity between these two students, the disparity between the effects of music with lyrics and music without lyrics on cognitive function varies from person to person, and, as conjectured by Anna Bradley and Adrian Furnham of University College London, depends primarily on personality type. In a psychological study conducted by Furnham and Bradley in October of 1997, subjects were asked to complete a memory test along with a reading comprehension test whilst listening to various forms of music. The results determined that while lyrical music is generally a detriment to the test-taking abilities of both introverts and extroverts, it is more of a distraction for introverts. Furthermore, they determined that in some cases lyrical music and background noise in general actually improved the test-taking abilities of extroverts.
The effects of music on cognitive function does not vary solely based on the presence of lyrics. Another factor that comes into play is the tone, or “feel,” if you will, of the music in question. A study conducted in 2002 exposed children of ages seven to ten to calm, relaxing music as they took a series of arithmetic and memory tests, and then to loud, aggressive music while they took similar tests. Afterwards the children took the same tests in silence. The results showed that calming music greatly enhanced test-taking abilities, while aggressive music served as a distraction. However, this study neglected to take into account different personality types, thus it is yet unknown if this affects both introverts and extroverts equally.
Overall, it is safe to say that music in general greatly improves cognitive function and productivity.
“It definitely helps me focus more; so over a short period I get more work done,” says Ghosh. Although lyrical music has its drawbacks in some cases, based on the personality type of an individual it can be just as helpful as non-lyrical music. So before you replace Stromae with Beethoven, make sure you’re choosing the music that is best for you.