In a recent essay, the writer Lawrence Norfolk talked about the kinds of music he could listen to while he wrote, and what kinds of music could stimulate him to write. His conclusions are perhaps rather surprising, in that he ends up suggesting that he likes to work to the sound of heavy rock. For many people, it would be difficult not only to work with heavy rock music playing, but with any kind of music at all. For many people, music – or noise of any kind – does not help concentration, and therefore study or work. Rachel, a university student says: ‘I need total silence to be able to work. If there’s any background noise of any kind, I get distracted. Music, even if it’s just the radio on quietly, is a definite “no”!’
However, many others claim that having music on while you study or work can help improve your concentration. Listening to fast music helps you to do things faster – a surgeon friend of mine recently horrified me by admitting that when they have a lot of operations to get through, they listen to very fast classical music in the operating theatre.
Most people probably fall between these two extremes. Martina, a high school student, claims that listening to music helps her when she’s doing a translation of Greek or Latin, but not when she’s studying mathematics or physics. ‘I think it depends on the level of concentration you need’, she says. ‘Music is fine when I’m doing something that’s quite automatic, but if I really have to get down to concentrating on something difficult, then I need silence.’ Francesca, a journalist, seems to agree. ‘When I’m doing background reading or taking notes, then I like having music on. It makes the task seem less boring. However, when I’m trying to write an article – especially if I have a tight deadline – then I really have to concentrate, and can’t have any distractions. Music can be a distraction.’
One advantage of having music on while you study is that when you hear the same music again it can help you remember things. How many of us have heard an old pop song and been transported right back to the time and place when we first heard the song? This is all very well, but if you’re studying for an examination, you can’t take your iPod into the exam.
The relationship between music and memory can be exploited in other ways however. My German teacher at school suggested setting lists of irregular verbs to music. This had limited success, though – while I could sing long lists of verbs, I still found it difficult to use them correctly!
The musician Brian Eno made a record called ‘Neroli’, which was music specifically designed to help people think. ‘Neroli’ is the name of the essential oil that can supposedly stimulate thought, and the music aims to have the same effect. The record is very, very quiet, little more than small waves of low synthesizer sounds. For me, though, when I hear it, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and listen to it. It’s so fascinating that it’s actually difficult to study or write or even think when it’s playing – you find yourself just listening to the music. It doesn’t actually stimulate thought at all, just close attention to the music itself.
Whether to have music playing in the office or workplace is always a difficult choice. While it may help improve concentration or provide relaxation for some people, for others it is at best a distraction and at worst an irritant.
As with so many study skills, then, it seems the answer comes down to personal preference. Do whatever works for you, but give every method a try before you decide – even listening to heavy rock!