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When I was at school, the teachers always forbade us from using our mp3s, and we weren't allowed to listen to any music while in class. The reason being that it seems the music would distract us, that is, we won't be able to concentrate as well.

Is this true? Why do the swimmers then listen to music before they swim? I heard once that it was to help them focus and concentrate. So, does music really distract one, or does it actually help you concentrate better.

I'm asking this because I believe it helps me concentrate better, but my sister also recently told me that it wasn't good for concentration.

Has a study been done on this?

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    vartec's answer is pretty good, but in your specific situation it's far more likely to be the fact that you're in school, and the teachers want you paying attention to them. It's generally considered rude if someone is talking to you and you're not fully listening to him/her. If it's not during a lecture, but rather during a test or quiz, it could very well be that you've recorded hints or answers as an audio file, and could easily be considered cheating. The concentration end is a good question, but lack of concentration probably wasn't their main concern. – erekalper Jul 18 '11 at 14:19
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    Correct answer: "It depends". – Lennart Regebro Jul 20 '11 at 8:36
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    the case of swimmers doesn't match you in a class. the swimmers are listening to music before they actually swim, this would be akin to you listening to music before class started not during it. – Ryathal Aug 27 '12 at 13:48
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The most famous study is talking about so called "The Mozart effect".

In 1993 Rauscher et al. made the surprising claim that, after listening to Mozart's sonata for two pianos (K448) for 10 minutes, normal subjects showed significantly better spatial reasoning skills than after periods of listening to relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure or silence. The mean spatial IQ scores were 8 and 9 points higher after listening to the music than in the other two conditions.

[...]

An enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning performance after listening to Mozart's music for 10 minutes has been reported by several, but not all, researchers. Even in the studies with positive results the enhancement is small and lasts about 12 minutes. The effect varies between individuals and depends upon the spatial tasks chosen; general intelligence is not affected.

Note, that this study has been somewhat controversial, as many researches failed to reproduce any results.

There are also studies, that give quite the opposite result:

Music may impair cognitive abilities in these scenarios because if you're trying to memorize things in order, you may get thrown off by the changing words and notes in your chosen song, the authors speculate.

And another one:

McCraty, Rollin. "The Effects of Different Types of Music on Mood, Tension, and Mental Clarity." HeartMath 76 (2002). 17 Sep 2005 .

They tested four genres of music from various corners of the music world; Grunge Rock, New Age, Classical, and Designer. The results were conclusive in revealing that grunge rock evoked hostility and greatly reduced mental clarity and motivation. We found this particularly important to our studies as we also plan to test primarily college students who commonly listen to grunge music.

What I've read (can't quite find the reference now), is that music with lyrics decreases you concentration because your brain will involuntarily interpret what the song is saying. Obviously, classical music, like Mozart, is purely instrumental.

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    nice answer, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the type of task affects the outcome -- when I do woodworking, I can stay "in the zone" and completely concentrating for a lot longer with music (classic rock), but I would be worthless listening when trying to read/acquire information/facts. Your two quotes seem to say about the same -- spacial awareness is definitely not the same as memorizing! – Hendy Jul 18 '11 at 14:57
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    The first reference (to the Mozart Effect) is irrelevant. It talks about how skilled the participants were at doing a task AFTER listening to music, not DURING. – Oddthinking Feb 14 '12 at 6:56
  • Also, the Zeigarnik Effect suggests that, if you stop listening to music, finish the song first. Otherwise, it will remain, uncompleted, in your memory stack, distracting you from other tasks. – Sean Duggan Jul 10 '14 at 17:25
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This is slightly off the wall, but one particular study looks at the effect of music on Netball players. But I think it translates across, especially with the swimming comparison, because it's about psychological state called "flow". Their conclusion was: "Interventions comprising self-selected music and imagery can enhance athletic performance by triggering emotions and cognitions associated with flow."

Music, especially music that you like and have heard many times to the point where you're not even paying attention any more and, more importantly, may drown out other noise sources (siblings, pets, the TV downstairs) that would otherwise distract you.

To answer your question in a more apropos manner, though: your music may help you concentrate, but your music may also hinder your sister's concentration.

For link rot, the study is: "Effects of asynchronous music on flow states and shooting performance among netball players," J Patesa, C.I Karageorghisb, R Fryera, I Maynarda

  • echoing my comment on the question, were the athletes in the study listening to music during play or before they started? – Ryathal Aug 27 '12 at 15:25
  • @Ryathal The abstract doesn't say clearly, and it's paywalled, but the implication seems to be during. – Kaz Dragon Aug 28 '12 at 6:54
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According to focus@will, the answer is that it depends on the music in question. f@w is a music service claiming to use neuroscience to sequence their music to enhance concentration:

Concentration sequence

f@w has published a white paper[pdf] on their first experiment in 2013, showing a 12% increase in beta and theta frequencies at P3 and P4 when listening to f@w-designed music as compared to participant-selected music. f@w is apparently also working on another experiment now to test genre and music intensity against different brain types.

In general, to help focus, you want "music with soothing aspects, that plays at 60 beats per minute, [which] can decrease neural activity, and lead to a relaxed, but awake state called alpha state that is defined by an increase in alpha brain waves and a decrease in higher activity beta waves." Vocal music is not a good choice, as your brain tries to focus on the words instead of relaxing, so all of the music on f@w is instrumental. f@w Science Primer (with references).

On a personal note, I've noticed an almost Pavlovian response to using the f@w service, which is also mentioned. I begin listening to f@w when I want to concentrate, and so now when I listen to f@w, I concentrate.

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