The soundtrack to your studies

The BBC recently published a short video that explained why some people respond better to having music playing when they’re studying and others work better in silence.

This is a topic that has been on my radar for a long time, because Mr C and I differ radically on our approaches to concentration. He can listen to music as he works and learns, whereas I don’t favour silence but certainly prefer a white noise that requires no additional concentration.

We knew there must be some kind of hardwiring in our brains that differs on this subject (as on so many other topics too), but it’s brilliant to hear about the actual science and reasoning behind the different ways to go about learning.

Music’s effect on our attention can be two-fold. So if someone is very bored with a task, not really engaging with it then having something like music in the background that does excite the person, and raises their level of attention to their environment, can help focus them on the task in hand.

One of the classic psychological theories of performance describes the way we behave on an upside down u-shaped curve. The two points at the bottom are the non-optimal places to be, down here is boredom, mind-wandering, low in attention. Over here is stress, over-stimulation and panic.

Just in case you find that hard to picture, I have taken the liberty of producing a top-notch, well-researched and carefully crafted graph to illustrate:


Music is a stimulus that can move us along this u-shaped curve. So if you’re down here, bored low-attention, low energy, music can bring you up the curve towards your optimum. The other side of it, of course, is if you’re already at your optimum, or worse slightly over then too much music in your environment can push you towards feeling stressed, anxiety and panic.

Basically, it comes down to energy. So people who are more introverted have a higher level of internal energy within them, so they don’t seek a lot of stimulation from the environment because they are already close to their optimum for performance. Whereas extroverts, they are seeking external stimulation, they’re seeking things from their environment, because their internal battery is lower. So that is why extroverts have often been found to perform better when music is in the background, as opposed to people who are more introverted.