in the groove:with Fred Zindi
Over the last two weeks I have been watching students at the University of Zimbabwe studying in groups in order to prepare for their end of semester examinations. These students are lucky because they have an endless supply of electricity throughout the day and night. So they take full advantage of this privilege in many forms, which include ironing their clothes, charging their cellphones and watching television at no extra charge.
What amazed me was that some groups of students studied with their radios on or mobile phones playing background music on full blast. I began to wonder whether having background music while studying has an effect on concentration. I did not have an answer to this except verbal statements from friends.
Long ago when I was doing my O’levels, friends used to tell me that background music helps concentration when undertaking studies.
I started looking for literature on this topic and what I found out was the opposite of what I and many students believe. I discovered that people who listen to music while they are studying may be doing more harm to themselves than good. Of course, there is an exception to this rule. Music students such as those undertaking the current music degree being offered by the Midlands State University (MSU) in Harare have no choice as playing music is part of their practical examination preparedness. I understand that they finished their examinations last week. This group included the likes of Clive Mono Mukundu, Tafadzwa Marova, Godfrey Mampondo, Amavel Pinto, Forward Mazuruse and Memory Chinamasa. I can’t wait to see their results when they are published. This will give me a clue as to whether music helps concentration. Edith We Utonga, who was on this programme last year passed with flying colours. It is my hope that this group will do the same.
I also found some literature, which seemed to suggest that studying while playing music has positive effects.
With examination month in full swing at the UZ, many students may be looking for ways to boost their studying energy. One common technique students often turn to is background music.
Online polls show that the majority of people listen to music while they study or work.
The assumption is that music, especially classical, non-lyrical music such as Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Beethoven boosts concentration. But is that actually true?
A study published earlier this year by some researchers decided to put this assumption to the test. Here was the setup: People were separated into two groups — one that listened to a particular type of music while studying and one that listened to silence. Three different experiments used this setup to test the impact of different types of music.
Music with unfamiliar (Spanish language) lyrics versus silence;
Music with familiar (English) lyrics versus silence; and
Instrumental music with no lyrics versus silence.
Across all three studies, listening to music was found to significantly decrease performance on the study test. It didn’t matter if the music had lyrics or not. It didn’t matter if the music was in an understood language or not. What clearly emerged was a pattern suggesting that in all of these conditions, music resulted in worse performance.
In sum, these studies provide strong evidence that, contrary to popular belief, listening to music actually impairs the creative processing students rely on to produce better performance. But what if you can’t stand the sound of silence when working? Not to worry, here’s a simple solution. In the third experiment, in addition to the music and silence group, they also included a third group that listened to ambient library noise (distant chatter, typing, the rustling of papers) while studying. The results showed that this ambient noise group performed just as good as the silence group (and better than the music group). So, if you currently listen to music while you study, consider switching to ambient background noise instead.
I actually came to this conclusion on my own a few years ago. Although I listened to instrumental music while writing my first book, I have since then moved away from that approach. Nowadays, I listen to nature sounds instead. If it’s warm outside, I sit on my deck and write while listening to the birds’ chirping and the wind traipsing through the trees. But when cold weather drives me inside, I pull up YouTube and listen to videos of nature sounds — babbling streams, ocean waves, crickets around a campfire, whatever sounds best fit the location and mood I’m trying to capture in my studies or writings. Plus, research shows that being exposed to nature in any form is a natural creativity booster .
I asked one mature music student, who is also a great composer what he thought about listening to music while writing his compositions. This is what he had to say: “Nowadays, I listen to music only when I write . I don’t listen to music when I compose anymore. I can’t. I’ve lost the ability to multi-task that way!
One might attribute the change to age, but in truth, music is distracting to your brain no matter what your age. As a result, listening to music while writing or working can impair your ability to make those all-important insights that are necessary for the creative process. So the next time you are writing, shut off your music, remove those earbuds and go sit in a park, a coffee shop, or a library for a well-needed creativity boost.”
This mature student obviously believes that music can be a distracter to one’s ability to concentrate.
However, quite to the contrary, according to Dr Marsha Godkin a researcher in music: “Music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, and the activation of both hemispheres can maximize learning and improve memory.”
Godkin, who is a believer in using music to study also says that it is good to stick with classical music. One reason this genre works well is that there are no lyrics to distract you. You can also branch out into meditation music, which is ideal for concentration as it is meant to relieve stress and relax your mind.
Music has a profound effect on our mood, blood pressure, and heart rate. For the best music to focus and study, if you agree with Godkin’s theory, choose tunes that keep you awake but won’t cause you to start tapping your body to the beat. For genres like Zimdancehall, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Sungura, it’s a no no no! Classical music has been recommended.
Instead of relying on the radio or a random mix of own recorded music, it is best to create a playlist of the best study music for concentration. You can plan a set amount of uninterrupted music, which serves as a built-in timer for studying. When the music is up, you’ve earned your break.
There is still a lot of controversy in this area. Prior to this series of experiments, some studies had shown evidence that music boosts creativity, but those studies measured creativity by using something called the Alternatives Uses Task. In recent years, scientists have moved away from this measure because it fails to capture “convergent thinking,” which refers to the process of making connections between seemingly distinct concepts to come up with a novel and creative solution.
In order to establish exactly what music does to the mind, I decided to carry out my own experiment.
I asked 50 students in my class who were all doing a Faculty-wide course in statistics to fill in a simple questionnaire with the following 5 items:
1.Do you listen to music while studying?
2. If so, what sort of music do you listen to?
3.Do you think that music helps you when you are studying?
4. If so, how does it help you?
5. Do you think it is a good idea for examinations to be written with background music playing?
I have collected their responses which I will analyse using the statistics (t-test) necessary for comparing the means of the differences between two groups ( i.e. the music group and the non-music group.) This will be done after marking their examination papers., I am going to compare the results to find out if there are any significant differences between the group which believes that playing music while studying helps their examination preparedness and those who think the opposite. After this I will have a definite answer on whether studying with music on helps performance or not. For now, the question, “Does music affect performance in an examination?” still remains.
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