Should my child listen to music while revising?

March 19, 2019

I get asked by many parents whether they should encourage the use of music during their child’s revision sessions. Many students listen to music when revising and it’s now a key study trend. Nowadays, music is very accessible and we can listen to any song on our mobile phone instantly at the click of a button. People listen to music in many more situations than they did several years ago - everywhere you look people are walking around with their headphones plugged in, whether it’s sitting on the bus or train or simply listening to music during their general daily routine. Silence has become very much a thing of the past. It seems we need musical accompaniment to every aspect of our lives.

Many students say that listening to music helps them to study better, but what does the research say? Does listening to music boost performance? Does it matter what type of music students listen to? Are there effective ways to incorporate listening to music into revision?

The myth of ‘The Mozart Effect’

Some time ago, a series of studies linked to ‘The Mozart Effect’ found that people performed better on a series of cognitive tasks after listening to 10 minutes of Mozart. All of a sudden it became popular to listen to music whilst working in the pursuit of boosting cognitive ability.  Additionally, this was fuelled by headlines in the media such as “Listening to Mozart makes you smarter”.

However, more recent research has revealed that the initial findings were somewhat misleading.  In actual fact, listening to music BEFORE a task can make some people feel better, listening to music DURING the task does not actually help with focus and concentration.

Is listening to music is a drain on attention?

We know that multi-tasking isn’t always the most effective way of getting stuff done.  Often giving our full attention to a single task can result in better productivity rather than dividing our attention across a variety of tasks.  Listening to music whilst revising falls into this multi-tasking strategy. If students are splitting their attention between listening to music (especially music with lyrics) as well as revising a subject, then they are effectively splitting their attention between two different activities. It may be easy for the student to think that listening to music doesn’t take much of their attention, but it does – even if it is just their unconscious attention. Listening to music takes up valuable processing space – even if students are familiar with the songs. It can overwhelm the brain and reduce the ability to focus and concentrate on the revision at hand. The worst type of music students can listen to are songs with lyrics. We all know how the lyrics of a song can get stuck in our head!  Whilst that is happening it can be very difficult for students to process the subject matter they are revising

What does the research say?

A study was carried out by the Applied Psychology Department of Cardiff Metropolitan University where the researchers split students into four groups. The first group revised in complete silence, the second revised whilst listening to music with lyrics they liked, the third group revised listening to music with lyrics they didn’t like and the fourth group revised listening to music without lyrics. All groups then sat a series of exams.

The results showed that the group of students who revised in silence performed 60% better in the exams than the groups who listened to music with lyrics. The group who listened to music without lyrics performed better than the group who listened to music with lyrics. It made no difference to the scores whether students liked the music with lyrics or not. All students revising in silence reported that the environment was less distracting and that they predicted they would do better in the exams than the other groups.

Revision conditions should mirror exam conditions

The brain likes to form patterns and connections.  If students spend time revising listening to music and then take their exams in silence it can be more difficult for the brain to retrieve the information without the music in the background. Wherever possible students should be replicating exam conditions when they revise so that the brain can associate these conditions with learning and retrieving the necessary information.

Ways to incorporate music into revision:

Although listening to music can be counter-productive during the actual task of revision, there are ways that students can use music to help them in their studies:

  • Students can play music for before revision to get themselves in the mood. This playlist should include songs that make them feel good and put them in the right mood to be able to learn effectively. The playlist will then act as a trigger in their brain that it’s time for study and focus.
  • Students can play music after the task of revision is finished and this will de-stress them and let them wind-down.
  • Students could use music as a way to learn material. They could try putting content they are trying to revise into the lyrics of a popular song.  We all know how words of a song can get stuck on our head when we’re not even trying, so this is a great way for students to use this to their advantage.  See this YouTube example of a song about GCSE Physics  https://youtu.be/julsWRlp4M4. There are lots of similar ones for different topics on YouTube!
  • Students could use the microphone on their phone to record themselves speaking or singing quotes out loud, speaking foreign language vocabulary, formulas or scientific processes. They could then play these recordings back to themselves using their headphones while they are out and about walking to school, on the bus or taking a walk round the block for some fresh air.

I’ve always said to parents that revision in silence is always preferable to an environment with music or noise.  The studies referred to above appear to confirm this and so replicating exam conditions will always give your son or daughter the best chance of success in their exams.  Good luck!

I hope you have found this article interesting and have some ideas to share with your children. If you need extra help with GCSE revision strategy then take a look at my HeadsUp! Revision Strategy programme. Designed specifically for year 10 and 11 students to take the stress out of revision and make it more enjoyable! Available as a half day workshop, 4 part live webinar series or a 1-2-1 tailored programme.

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The HeadsUp! Webinar Programme is a series of 4 live and interactive webinars covering all aspects of GCSE revision.

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This post was written by Beth Parmar