While music has been used in clinical applications since the 18th century, music therapy was first used in an educational setting during the 1830s at the famed Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. Since WWII, music therapy has become increasingly popular in the medical arena—but it’s only been within the last few years that educators have begun to appreciate its value as an aid to concentration and memory for students.
Part of this realization stemmed from a 1997 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Titled “The Mozart Effect,” the study concluded that the music of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) can significantly impact the electronic impulses of the brain, stimulating them to boost memory and concentration. Since the publication of this article, other studies have subsequently supported its conclusions that music has a positive impact on one’s cognitive abilities. According to the author, Don Campbell, it’s gratifying to see that music is finally being recognized as “a fundamental nutrient for physical well-being, mental development, stress release, and emotional expression.”
Music, the Brain, and the Nervous System
Within the past decade, extensive research (including a comprehensive study from Northwestern University) has shown that engagement with musical sounds enhances neuroplasticity and also primes the nervous system to be sensitive to audible components that affect speech, vocabulary, word comprehension, and reading ability.
Likewise, a 2009 study from a psychologist at UC Davis showed that the brain region where memories are stored is also the region that processes emotion—and music. This confirms that the three components—music, emotion, and memory—are linked together in the human brain.
Concentration is another factor. Experts say that the human brain has two attention systems: a conscious and an unconscious one. The conscious system is easily thrown by distractions produced by the unconscious attention system—distractions such as noises, thoughts, and feelings. Musical sounds, however, can neutralize these distractions in a pleasurable way, helping the brain focus more sharply on the task at hand.
Some of the benefits of musical engagement for the brain include:
- Increased productivity
- More energy and increased physical performance
- More positive, balanced moods
- Stress relief
- Increased concentration
- Improved memory
In an effort to link memory with music, some teachers are already beginning to incorporate music into their classrooms. For example, at San Jose University, math professor Patricia Swanson has her students sing math equations and go through math-related dance moves. “Song and dance serve well to help us remember lyrics, or in this case math formulas,” Swanson said. So far, the experiment has resulted in significantly higher math scores for her students.
Music to Study By
Which type of music is more effective for study? Perhaps not surprisingly, it depends upon individual preference. Experts say that people focus more effectively with music they enjoy, while distasteful music can be a distraction. This means that if someone dislikes a certain type of rock, then being subjected to it can actually create an obstacle to learning.
One common denominator, though, is the effect of lyrics on learning. Learners work more effectively while listening to music without words, because the brain pays particular attention to vocalization, and words can become distractions.
According to a number of studies, research shows that, in general, the most effective musical genres for studying (ranked in no particular order) are:
- Classical music
- World music
- Instrumental and/or atmospheric rock
- Instrumental jazz
- Ambient and electronic music
Whatever the genre of preference, experts recommend that before studying, students should spend at least five minutes listening to enjoyable, non-vocal musical tracks (set at low to medium volume) that they find conducive to relaxation and concentration. It might take some experimenting, but finding the right music to study by may actually lead to better grades as well as help students cultivate a more pleasurable learning routine.