This morning I was supposed to be writing about how music can help you work, but instead I found myself distracted, wandering around the kitchen, looking in the fridge and checking Facebook, somehow, I just couldn't get started. Suddenly the irony of the situation hit me, I reached for some music, and with the Cuckoo Clocks' new single playing in the background, as if by magic, the words just started to flow.
This isn't the first time I've faced this problem, as a student I'd often work through the night on an assignment and struggle to stay focused in the early hours. The trouble is that my only-too-human brain can typically only concentrate for about 20 minutes before struggling. Stress, noise, hunger and tiredness all shorten how long I can stay focused for. At worst, I zigzag from drowsy to wired, and produce work that is far below what I'm capable of. But when I was in the zone I'd work for hours without a break, in a flow state, as computer games theorists call it.
To stay awake, a first instinct is caffeine. So I was pleased when I found out that Pro Plus has unveiled a playlist specially designed to help students study, based on research they commissioned that explores whether music helps or hinders studying success. Even though today's students are spending on average 2 hours less per week in the library than their parent's generation, almost three times as many students achieve first class degrees. So, what's the secret? A powerful playlist would appear to be one answer, with three quarters of today's student population listening to music when studying to aid concentration and motivation.
I grew up learning in stony silence, my schoolteachers aiming for pin drop silence and only allowing talking occasionally. It turns out that they were missing out on the role music can play in helping us to achieve our best. For many years, educational researchers in Australia have used music to aid the concentration of students of all ages. They need something to help them, Pro Plus also found our fixation with social media to be the number 1 distraction, closely followed by Netflix box set bingeing and playing computer games. Their parents' generation - I'm talking about my generation here - were mostly distracted by a night out on the town, which I still think is more fun!
Whereas, their parents had to cope with the humble cassette mixtape, today's young nighthawk study sessions are sound-tracked by custom curated music playlists to keep on task. 24 to 34 year olds are more likely to listen to an artist's album, and over 55s will listen to whatever appears on the wireless. So, what does research say music can do to help turn you into a working genius (well at least to keep you awake)?
It seems it's a 'horses for courses' case here, with the perfect playlist being dependent on the task in hand. For an all-night study session, the music needs to turn up the pace to keep your blood coursing through the veins, boosting natural stimulants in the body. But you must avoid anything too fast, otherwise you can get too hyped up, and stressed. Music with lyrics can keep you sharp, helping avoid your brain slowing to an alpha or theta brainwave state, in which you can feel drowsy. It's important to choose music that particularly appeals to you, everyone's perfect playlist is different. For something that involves complex thinking at a higher level, like a dissertation, you should listen to instrumental music, as you need the intellectual space that lyrics might take up.
Lower tempo music can achieve something quite different, reducing tension, entraining your body, even your heartbeat, to a lower speed when listening to chilled out music. For anything mathematical, calming background music seems to work, as do lyrics, so choosing songs can be good. Extroverts it seems respond better to familiar music, introverts might want something new. The research shows that silence is worse than vocal or instrumental music when working with pictures, so for art homework or graphic design music is a must. If for your music is distracting, turn it off, but it's at least worth trying working with music playing. The work might take longer, but you might get more done, and be happier while you are doing it.
Professor of Music at the University of Huddersfield, Dr. Rupert Till has develop the "Study Like A Pro" playlist in partnership with Pro Plus to help students stay alert and focused throughout their studies.