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Study Jams: Should you listen to music while studying?

It’s taken me three years of unproductive library bludges and mile-a-minute deadline scrambles to realise that half of the studying game is ‘getting in the zone’. Some spend their whole degree searching for this elusive state of mind, where all else melts away except you and your 1315-page Constitutional Law textbook (rare to say the least). In the spirit of exam period, I would like to share my secret for a quality study session: music.

Ambient music is great starting point for many reasons. It’s by-and-large wordless, which means there aren’t any distracting sing-a-longs or ear-wormy lyrics (note: listening to music with lyrics will probably make it harder to concentrate. We’re talking instrumental here.) Ambient music is designed to occupy the background – as pioneer Brian Eno said, to be “as ignorable as it is interesting”. There are many great ambient albums to choose from, most of which run for around an hour, perfect for an ideal study session.

The obvious starting point here is Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, a 1978 release which kickstarted the ambient style. Eno wrote the piece to be played at airports, which typically feature cluttered, chaotic and stressful soundscapes, and to instead “induce calm and a space to think.” It did the trick: the legend goes that when it was played in airport terminals in the 80s, people would fall asleep and miss their flights. These calming piano and choral synth compositions provide a suitably mellow atmosphere for all your study needs.

From here, you can move on to Eno’s later ambient work, Apollo, which is also suitably relaxed and uplifting, or you can try Substrata’s 1997 classic Biosphere for a chillier soundscape. If you need something with beats, I highly recommend Apex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, my personal gold standard for study music. Over an hour of driving, low-key techno, sure to make you feel like you are a computer programmed to do nothing but study. An alternative is Boards of Canada’s bouncy Music Has The Right To Children, loaded with unique but non-distracting beats and synth explorations. Global Communication’s 76 14 is a good middle ground between beatless chill and toe-tapping focus.

If ambient isn’t quite your bag, there are a few other options to explore. I gave classical music a test-drive for the purposes of this article, and it works pretty damn well too. Some even describe the ‘Mozart effect’, whereby you gain a bit of a cognitive boost by listening to classical. I found listening to any Mozart mix on YouTube particularly effective. Take your pick: Beethoven, Bach, or even all of the above in one.

Another surprising source of good study music is video game soundtracks. Video game music is typically wordless and is designed to be engaging without being distracting, making it ideal for focus. My personal favourites in this category are the Ratchet and Clank soundtracks; funky, futuristic and just genuinely great music (I catch myself leaving it on in my breaks). It’s probably best to think of your favourite video games and see if they have anything suitable. Some other personal picks include the epic Halo series, the serene Journey soundtrack and the bit-of-both Mass Effect soundtracks.

Let’s lay down some ground rules for listening to music while studying.

  1. pick something without words.
  2. play it somewhat quietly, so that it occupies the background.
  3. all of the albums and pieces mentioned above are just suggestions and starting points; pick something you’re into!
  4. don’t have music on all the time; it can be draining and can take away from its power when done constantly.
  5. remember: having music on doesn’t automatically make a study session productive. As much as music really can help, you still have to sit down and flip those damn pages.

Music has an incredible immersive quality. If you’re listening to the right stuff in the right place, it can be truly transportive; whether it’s actually enjoying your three-hour train trip with a new album, exorcising some uni angst at a rock gig, or, as we’re hoping for with this article, getting a few laser-focused hours of study in with some suitable tunes. Happy hunting for your own personal study soundtrack, and good luck!



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