A survey shows that music is an integral part of studying for most Bryn Mawr students.
By Vanessa Ide
Whenever Lillie Catlin goes to her college library to study, her Audio-Technica ATH-M30 headphones are always with her.
Catlin, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, who lives in the Pembroke East Dorm, usually visits Rhys Carpenter library on weekends, where she studies while listening to music on her computer.
“They’re really good headphones,” Catlin said. “Which I think makes a difference because for a while I didn’t have my good headphones and I was using these little head buds and I hated how they felt and they didn’t make the music sound good.”
Lately, Catlin, a devoted music fan with 3,333 songs on her iTunes library, has been listening to a lot of Christmas music, Disney songs and Arcade Fire. She mainly studies social sciences and listens to music whenever she does her readings.
“I do think it kind of distracts me though,” she said. “I mean, I think I’d be distracted if I didn’t listen to it but also sometimes when I need to focus on something I’ll turn it down or turn it off and read a section and then I’ll get back to it [the music].”
Catlin’s habits are the same as large number of Bryn Mawr students. A recent survey found that nearly 62 percent of Bryn Mawr students found it helpful to listen to music while studying. The remainder of the respondents said it hurt studying.
The “Music & Studying” survey was conducted during the week of Dec. 4-10. It was sent via e-mail to all 1,293 Bryn Mawr undergraduates; 27 percent responded to the five questions asking about music studying habits and music preferences.
The survey makes clear that music is integral part of studying for most students.
To begin with, 13 percent said they always listened to music when studying; 31 percent said they listened frequently; another 47 percent said they listened sometimes. Only eight percent said they never listened to music while studying.
Not all subjects are created equal when it comes to studying and music.
Turn it off
When asked what subject they would turn off the music while studying students said language (50 percent) and humanities readings (63 percent respectively). In comparison, the music usually goes on when it comes to math and science. With math, 36 percent of the students said they listened, for science is was 27 percent who listened..
As one student noted on the “Music & Studying” survey: “[It’s] not a definite process: where the ideas keep switching (when I’m writing) I usually stop listening to music or I turn the music down. In general, if I have to use the right side of my brain – the music usually stops.”
(The survey was blind and the names of students who responded were not recorded.)
In an interview, junior Lee Wacker said that when she was a freshman her music listening habits depending on the subject.
“If I was reading in a foreign language, I absolutely, even if I felt like I was decently skilled in the language, I absolutely could not listen to music – even if it was French music and I was reading French,” she said.
However for her geography work, Wacker remembers listening to music while doing the course labs.
“I feel like in that case I think music did help because it was material that I liked but wasn’t inclined to want to do,” she said.
In the “Music & Studying” survey, one student commented, “I only listen to music without words when I study, and only when I am doing things that don’t require much mental effort.”
Another said: “I only listen to music when the homework I’m doing does not require too much concentration (like practicing writing Chinese characters).”
More harm than good
Is listening to music while studying helpful or harmful? That question was recently tested in a small study in Great Britain.
The study by the University of Wales, released last July, found that playing background music can impair a student’s ability to recall information even if it’s music they like.
The study found students’ memorization and recall was better if they listened to quiet music and music with a steady speech sound.
The authors, Nick Perham and Joanne Vizard, said the changing patterns in background music might cause students’ minds to pay attention to the music rather than focus on the studying. This, in turn, affects the ability to recall information, particularly if students are trying to memorize information in a specific order or pattern.
In other words, music is a distraction.
The Wales study sample was small – only 25 students, none of whom liked “thrash” music. The students were invited to bring in their own, preferred music. Their study skills were measured with four different sounds: when listening to their music, thrash music, a string of varying numbers and the repetition of the number three.
Perham and Vizard were surprised to find that the students performed equally poor whether listening to their own music, thrash music or the string of numbers – if the music had significant acoustical variations. The findings counter most students’ belief that listening to music is helpful.
At Bryn Mawr, student’s musical tastes are wide-ranging. In the “Music & Studying” survey, respondents voluntarily offered the types of genres they like to listen to when studying. The typical answers of “indie,” “rap,” “Lady Gaga,” and “folk” were there along with “Bollywood,” “K-pop,” and “Flamenco.”
One student said: “Music from Pakistan or India; sometimes sad, sometimes happy, sometimes peppy, sometimes upbeat, sometimes classical, but almost always in the language Urdu/Hindi.”
The Wales study found that quiet music, regardless of genre and without significant varying tonal qualities, is best for studying. Sophomore Vicki Sear at Bryn Mawr agrees. “I listen to a lot of light stuff,” she said. “Whether it’s like Andrew Bird or Cat Stevens or I really like Ska. Depending how tired I am I’ll listen to Ska but that’s pretty much all I listen to when I study…”
Change listening habits
Gillian Diffenderfer, another sophomore, said she turns to classical music for most subjects, but also demonstrates how students modulate their music and their listening habits by subject.
“If I’m just doing mindless grammar things I’ll just listen to classical, nothing with words. But with math I always listen to music. If I’m reading something, it depends on what I’m reading — sometimes I’ll listen to classical, sometimes I’ll not listen to music.”
In interviews, most students said they prefer to study to music that they have been listening to for awhile. It’s what Vicky Sear calls “comfort music.”
“It’s harder to listen to something you’ve never heard before because you’re really listening to it,” said sophomore Riley Diffenderfer. “I always turn to things that I know really well when I’m studying.”
While most students assume that listening to music they like will help their studying skills, Perham and Vizard said that is not true.
“Interestingly, recall performance was in contrast to participants’ own views about the sound conditions,” Perham and Vizard said in the Wales study.
“Despite liking and deeming their self-selected music as more pleasant than the other sound conditions, their performance was actually as poor in this condition as in the… music that they actually disliked.”
While Perham and Vizard recommend music that is quiet, that type of music did not rank very high in the “Music & Studying” survey. The most popular genres, besides the already mentioned alternative and classical, were pop, rock, electronica/dance and hip-hop.
Interviews with students also indicated at least two different ways music is used as a social tool in conjunction with studying.
One student sees it as a companion when she’s studying alone in her room, but another student will only use it when she’s in a study group.
Lillie Catlin describes the experience of playing music while studying alone as a way of staying connected.
“I just don’t like how much I’m shutting myself off,” she said. “Music is a way that I can still stay connected. I also live in a single this year so [music makes things] less lonely.”
Vicky Sears shares a similar experience. Also living in a single this year, she said: “I really don’t like to feel alone when I’m studying. I really study really well in public places so when I’m listening to music I feel as though I’m not alone because that is going on.”
However, for Lee Wacker music is a key tool for group study sessions.
“When I’m hanging out with friends and, instead of like chatting, we’re doing homework but then the social aspect of that (that is already us all being together) is that there’s music in the room. It’s not usually used to distract but to bring us all together, an added element of fun.”
Some students say the instinct to stop listening to music when more attention to a subject is required kicks in when the subject becomes more difficult for them. And it may not be just subjects that require more attention. It may be the type of exam.
“Like for normal tests I probably would listen to music but for finals I probably wouldn’t just because I need to concentrate a little better,” said freshman Lauren Piemont.
She said math is also one of her more challenging courses and requires more of her attention.
Music does have value if a student listens to it before studying. There are “beneficial effects of music on cognition,” the Wales study said, adding that it increases performance by putting a listener in a positive mood, and alleviating anxiety and depression. The Wales study also said that attention and memory is improved.
The studies findings aside, for Bryn Mawr students music is part of the fabric of their lives, as anyone can see walking around campus counting the number of students wearing ear buds and head phones. For many, eliminating music entirely from studying is out of the question. .
Senior Madelyn Houser, who has developed the habit of listening to music while studying throughout college, said: “[Music] makes it more interesting…[studying] would be more like work. Music adds some fun element to it.”
For Lauren Piemont it’s a matter of staying interested in the assignments at hand.
“I think I get less bored if there’s something in the background,” she said. “So I can study for longer and I’m not as bored”
For Lee Wacker, music is a necessary ingredient to starting off her day.
“I definitely listen to music when I get up in the morning,” she said. “I definitely turn on music to pick my outfit, to get dressed and usually that, the music I pick, determines how the rest of my day will go…it colours how my day is going to turn out.”