Music (Kind of Music) and Studying
Sigur Ros and Radiohead too distracting? Here are a few even less conventional genres that are proven to help improve focus.
By Gabriel Aguilar, University of Texas at San Antonio
For everyone whose eyes wander from their textbooks to their fingernails to their desks before conveniently realizing they’re hungry enough for a break; for everyone who’s stared out of a library window at a motionless tree instead of reviewing the slide show again, and for everyone who reloads Instagram again and again, even giving the Explore section a try just to avoid writing about industrialization ah no the Explore section sucks—have no fear, there is hope.
You’re human, and humans get distracted, and even though we may be the next in line to run the entire world, millennials still have teeny tiny little microscopic attention spans. For a lot of students, stimulants like caffeine or Adderall are options, popular ones even, but music has been the student’s aide since an undergrad Plato wrote goth poetry to background lyre.
Unfortunately, finding the right study music is a highly personal quest, and what works for others rarely works for you. When I first listened to Sigur Ros at a friend’s recommendation, it sounded like a seagull whispering all Ross Geller’s emotional lines—the lip-quivering ones to Rachel that give me a sort of pena ajena and do everything but help me concentrate.
I myself bounced around Explosions in the Sky for awhile, then bumped Bon Iver’s ambient wind noises before eventually stumbling upon my custom-fitted concentration music of choice (concentration because I use it for more than studying), Washed Out.
And while I can’t concentrate if the music has even the faintest hint of discernibly articulated lyric, I know people who listen—just listen—to TV shows while they study, so everyone’s preferred study soundtrack is a little different.
There are some though, the truly unluckiest of souls, whose study music—already a needle and haystack scenario—evades even the traditional untraditional categories. Ambient noise, instrumental beats and vaporwave synths are too much for their hypersensitive, hyper-distractable minds, and the only recourse is even fringier, more left-wing music, and that’s the list we’ve compiled here. So if you have trouble studying to absolutely everything else, here are four, slightly more experimental genres to explore.
1. Alpha Waves
Alpha waves are a fairly new phenomenon in the non-traditional study music genre. It’s not so much music as much as it is a kind of drowning hum, like a postmodern white noise—nothing to tap your foot to, but certainly an existent sound somewhere in the universe.
They’re scientifically designed to promote concentration and relaxation: All background noise is comfortably drowned out by a mellow rhythm and a low rumble, and the waves can play for hours on end, leaving the listener in an existential trance.
You won’t find any playlists on Spotify, but search “alpha waves” on YouTube and choose which “songs” work for you. Different tempos and noises will change the intensity and concentration level of your study session, so dip your toe in first.
2. Classical Music
The most mainstream of our non-mainstream suggestions, classical music spans from Bach to Gershwin and everything in between. Piano, guitar and orchestral music are your standard classical types, and each has its own studying benefits.
Piano is atmospheric and good for heavy reading, especially if it’s a slower, more melodic song and not a jazzy rhapsody. Busier piano pieces are great for highlighting words and studying vocabulary, like if you’re memorizing medical terms for a biology class. Orchestral works are big and dramatic, like Beethoven’s symphonies, and they’re great for when you have the lazies and are in dire need of some inspiration.
Operatic music is a personal favorite of mine for studying, especially if it’s a foreign language, because unlike traditional classical music, opera revolves around the voice of a singer—and what makes an opera singer an opera singer is their ability to project their voice. Before microphones and speakers, vocalists had to sing loudly enough to fill an entire auditorium (and do so in tune), which is why opera runs on full voice, top-of-the-lungs, borderline yelling.
Compared to the already indie genre of classical music, operatic music is downright underground. As a result, not too many students are aware of its concentration-inducing powers. A good place to start is Vivaldi’s “Magnificat, RV 611: 10. Andante: Sicut Locutus est,” a short song, but a good example of opera’s PED status for schoolwork.
3. Video Game Music
Video game music is the unsung hero of the studying world, largely because there’s no lyrics, but also because by its very nature it’s meant to keep you focused on a doing something (playing a videogame).
The beats are jumpy, simple and take zero brainpower to ingest since they have no lyrics. Gamers often claim that they drown the music out, even though subconsciously the music is affecting their moods and focus level.
Faster music puts player on edge, making them frantic and jumpy, while music in minor keys makes players more careful and tentative. When you listen to video game music while studying, you can essentially block out the sounds but still get all of the subconscious benefits, whether you’re looking for intensity, meticulousness or relaxation. Try blasting the classics next time you study, and watch as Super Mario, Pac-man and Galaga get you uncomfortably focused.
4. Whale Song
Recordings of whales singing (not actually singing) help people relax if they’re unusually anxious, because the soothing cries and hiccups of whale communication trigger a primal response in the human brain.
The effect works on the same level as rain or thunderstorms, as the singing is aquatic, ebbing and flowing gently, but also are busy enough to keep outside noises from disrupting the listener. This is key when trying to study, especially for students who get distracted by sounds. Spotify offers some killer whale playlists, as well as rain sounds and other naturally soothing noises.