For most of my professional career, there has been a widespread belief that listening to music will distract kids from effective studying. I have always questioned this assumption, as have many of my teenage patients. While the kids almost always tell their parents that music helps them to study and learn, it may not be the music they prefer. There have been recent compelling studies suggesting that background music can improve on-task performance and attention, but that lyrical, popular music distracts from learning. Other studies indicate that loud music can interfere with academic performance and that popular music with lyrics is not helpful for reading comprehension. There is also strong evidence that music can help kids with self-regulation. These findings are essentially what I might expect from my own self-studies and discussions with my teenage patients.
I would like to offer a few suggestions to parents, teens, and college students about how they could use music to help with learning, attention, persistence, and time management. Many of these suggestions come from my own experience and the insights of thoughtful teenage and college-aged patients. However, before I provide specific advice, it is important to note that one size does not fit all. There are many personal preferences in music, how one listens to it, and the match between music content and the task at hand. In a world in which art, theater, and music classes are being cut from school budgets, we should do all we can to encourage our kids’ love of music, even if we do not like their music. After all, your parents almost certainly did not like your music choices. Suggestions include:
- Tailor the music to the individual. Listening to music is often very helpful for deep and creative thinking. Music can inspire, it can energize, and it can touch many parts of your brain. Some individuals find it helpful to be engaged with the music, while others need it just to be part of the background. I find that classical music, which I did not like as a younger person, is helpful for idea generation and brainstorming.
- Use music to mask other distractions. Rather than having total silence, many kids with ADHD and learning issues benefit from some background noise that blocks out other sounds in their home or classroom. But the music itself cannot be too distracting. Data on lyrical music suggest that music without words and that is not discordant might work best.
- Try different rhythms and beats. Different rhythms and beats may work well for some people and not as well for others. Try them to see what works best for the specific individual. I have tried the following on Spotify, which has a section called Focus:
Lo-Fi Beats (2,000,000 subscribers) – I thought I wouldn’t like it because it’s about the “beats,” which are fairly pronounced. It worked for me for a while but then became too intense. There were also tracks that worked for me when I was doing simple work, but not when I need to be highly focused.
Instrumental Study (960,000 subscribers) – It worked well for me,included a lot of piano music. I did not notice it after a while, and it became part of the background.
Productive morning (442000 subscribers) – This had too much change for me, along with some with vocals and new-age music that didn’t work well for me.
- Encourage experimentation to see what works. Try different types of music, use headphones or listen through speakers, or vary the volume. If the music is distracting, shut it off and try it later. There is evidence that background sound such as a television or video game being played is likely to distract people from their work, so try to eliminate these sounds.