Music is found to be helpful for cognitive performance, such as studying


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Gabriel Rivera, Copy Chief

Students have good reasons to believe music is helpful to their cognitive performance when studying or completing homework. “Music makes life better in so many ways,” Cindi May said in an article by Scientific American. “It elevates mood, reduces stress and eases pain. Music is heart-healthy, because it can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate and decrease stress hormones in the blood.”

While the positive impact music can have is undeniable, its influence on cognitive performance is still widely debated. Recent research conducted by Baruch College graduate student Manuel Gonzalez and Dr. John Aiello, a professor at Rutgers University, has demonstrated the answer may not be as linear as students commonly think.

“The effect of music on cognitive functioning appears not to be “one-size-fits-all” but to instead depend, in part, on your personality—specifically, on your need for external stimulation,” May says.

The need for external simulation is more common in people who get bored easily, resulting in them resorting to an alternate source for entertainment, such as music. In the study conducted by Gonzalez and Aiello, each participant filled out a personality test, known as the Boredom Proneness Scale, to determine their need for any form of  external stimulation.

From there, each participant in the study was separated into three separate groups and given a series of cognitive tasks ranging in difficulty to complete individually. While the first group of participants was required to complete the cognitive tasks with no music, the second and third groups had to listen to instrumental music of varying levels of complexity while handling the tasks. The third group was subjected to more sophisticated musical compositions than the second group to measure the impact the complexity of music has on cognitive performance as well.

Ironically, the data collected by Gonzalez and Aiello demonstrated those who need a high level of external simulation performed worse in the cognitive task when they were listening to music. People who did not need the external stimulation, however, had improved cognitive performance while listening to music.

In broader terms, the effect music has on your ability to effectively study and complete your schoolwork entirely depends on your personality. If you get bored easily and struggle to stay focused, listening to music while writing or studying may not be the best choice. If you are, however, able to stay on task with ease, listening to music may enhance your cognitive performance.

While this is promising news to some students, the relationship between music, cognitive performance and the need for external stimulation is not so trivial. In Gonzalez and Aiello’s study, the complexity of the music the second and third groups listened to greatly influenced the cognitive output of both the high and low stimulation participants.

Of the participants who commonly desire external stimulation, those in the final group that listened to more complex musical scores performed substantially worse in their cognitive task then those in the second group who were listening to instrumental pieces with simpler compositions.

On the other hand, the participants who were less likely to search for an external output of entertainment when engaging in cognitive tasks listening to complex compositions slightly outperformed those who completed the tasks to less complicated instrumentals.

Additionally, the complexity of the task being completed proved to alter the effects of music on the participants of the study as well.

For the group of participants who bore easily and have a high desire for external stimulation, their level of performance while listening to music, regardless of its complexity, was significantly lower when compared to those who were in silence across all the tasks they were asked to complete. Participants who were more inclined to retain focus on cognitive tasks that listened to music during the study only performed slightly better on complex tasks than those who had to complete them in silence, the former group did outshine the latter when it came to simpler tasks by a wide margin.

Although the results of this study suggest music can be beneficial to cognitive performance, students should be hesitant to instinctively jump into their playlists of favorite songs to do their schoolwork. Before settling in on a song to listen to while studying, students should take into consideration the song they select and the complexity of the task in front of them.

May notes that “the benefits of music for those with a low need for external stimulation that were observed here could diminish or even disappear with the added complexity of lyrics.” The study also demonstrated that music may not be an influential factor when performing a complex cognitive task.

Regardless of the uncertainties, students should not be afraid to experiment and see if listening to music while doing homework or studying is right for them.