José Ramón Alonso Peña



«With classic, with the latest Rosalía or in code chill out, but everything suits me better ». We can agree with this statement or, on the contrary, belong to the group of those who need absolute silence during the reading and the study. Many are bothered by the singer’s voice, but they improve their concentration with instrumental pieces. Other people enjoy a text if they accompany it with an opera background. We therefore have a wide variety of preferences and outcomes. Perhaps science has something to say:improves our cognitive abilities music?

If the scientific evidence gave an affirmative answer to this question, many parents would be defeated from the daily battle with their teenage children. The scene is repeated every afternoon in thousands of homes: the son does the homework with the music at full volume. The reason for the anger, in addition to other people’s discomfort, is the firm belief that in these acoustic conditions it is impossible for him to find out what he reads.

Well, it seems that science does not confirm the prejudices of the parents.

Intuitively, parental doubt makes sense: it is contradictory that we can focus 100% on one task if we share it with another at the same time. In other words, if we pay attention to one of them –in this case listening to music– the other –read, assimilate, solve– will be left unattended. However, in this case the hard-working teenager can justify her behavior, although she will have to argue her answer very well.

For example, repetitive rhythms have been shown to be of no use, as they are very boring and the brain cannot find the novel spark that makes it alert. Very complex and chaotic rhythms, like those of free jazz, do not work well either, because there is no defined pattern and the brain does not calm down. According to some experts, the key is to find the middle point. This appears in rhythms similar to funk as those of James Brown.

A study carried out by Professor Morten Kringelbach’s group reveals that our neural networks have a greater preference for this musical style because it is neither very predictable nor very chaotic.

We know that listening to music produces a series of emotions that cause physiological reactions and modify our mood. These pleasant sensations predispose us to action, also to cognition. Our favorite music not only brings us happiness, but also improves concentration, our work performance and, sometimes, our intellectual performance. This was demonstrated by the researcher Teresa Lesiuk, after studying the effect of music on the workers of a small company. They completed their tasks faster and generated more original ideas than those who worked silently. If we are happy, we are more creative.

Music has another advantage. The moment we put on the headphones, we protect ourselves from the rest of distractions. The mechanism is simple: our brain has two systems of attention: one conscious, which we control, and an unconscious, called the default neural network, which acts on its own. This unconscious system does not shut down while we perform a task, so even the slightest noise can destroy our concentration: tick from a clock to the hum of the fridge. Music calms the activity of this default network and minimizes activity between areas of the brain responsible for a permanent state of alert that has helped us survive as a species.

It depends, it all depends

In his study, Lesiuk emphasized the importance of personal choice of the type of music to improve concentration. If silence is the option, a self-evaluation without deception of the success or failure of music as a support tool will help to decide whether to continue using it or not. There is no clear strategy; The studies on the effects of background music on learning are inconclusive.

The variables to take into account in these investigations are many and the experiments with so many factors are complicated. Circumstances and musical tastes are essential to obtain results, but they are very different in each person. Even for the same task, background music can facilitate, harm or have no effect on learning new content.

Variables that play an important role in these experiments include individual differences (character, musical training, musical preferences, study habits). The type of task also influences cognitive (problem solving, reading comprehension, memorization) and the context (in the classroom or in the room, alone or in company).

The choice of music is another factor to consider. It is convenient to know the pleasant sensation that music causes in the student by itself, when listening without another simultaneous task. The tempo of the music is important, as is the intensity or the rhythm. You have to assess the influence of the singing voice, the absence of it, if they are known or new melodies for the listener. As we can see, the test conditions and the interactions between them are many and complicate the search for a model with a general and direct conclusion.

However, the results only confirm the inconsistency of the studies. One last Illustrative example comes from a study that measured reading comprehension and memory for word lists in various conditions: while listening to an a cappella song, with singing and instrumental music at the same time, only instrumental music, with a voice that does not sing but he speaks and, finally, in absolute silence. Although the conditions with singing or speaking could be expected to be the most unfavorable, this was not the case; the reading comprehension test had the same results as when the participants read in the other environmental conditions.

So we have our adolescent preparing for his exams with “full blast” music and we see that there is no scientific evidence to support the parents’ request for silence, at least alleging that it does not benefit him. Either way, headphones and good scores will help ease parental headaches.

José Ramón Alonso Peña is Professor of Cell Biology. Neurobiologist, University of Salamanca

This article has been written in collaboration with high school teacher and expert in education and neuroscience Marta Bueno.

A version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog, Neuroscience. This is the version of The Conversation.