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The science of music for med students

Can the right playlist really help you get better grades?

The positive effects that music has on the human brain are well-documented. Despite the fact that the human ear is the least powerful of our sensory organs (it has only 3,500 receptor cells vs. 100,000,000 in the human eye), the sound of music still manages to arouse a head-to-toe bodily response. This is because it stimulates a variety of different regions of the human brain—not just those responsible for cognition: musical notes and phrases engage short- and long-term memory centers, and can even effect the primary motor cortex, which controls the body’s movement (then again, anyone who has been to a rave could have told you that).

Our mental response to beats and melodies is remarkable. There’s a reason they play gentle Tibetan chanting at the spa, mellow jazz at the dentist’s office, and crank those thumping trance beats during your indoor cycling class. And there are many good reasons you should listen to music while you study, too. Research has shown that certain types of music can actually help you learn and retain information better.

So, how can you leverage the power of music to keep your brain sharp, crush your exams, and maintain a little sanity as you navigate your way through med school?


Sing It Loud! Sing It Clear!

recent study investigated the way different types of information are retained by the human brain, and it turns out that written and spoken words ain’t got nothing compared to words that are sung. Which makes sense, if you think about it. Quick: recite a sentence from your favourite book? Not so easy? Now sing the lyrics to your favourite song. You know the whole thing, don’t you?

Not only does singing help you encode information better – by acting as a mnemonic aid – it also improves comprehension. Now, we’re not expecting you to turn your Bio Sciences midterm into a Hamilton-style rap-musical (although, come to think of it—that would be pretty cool). But if there’s a particular fact/number/name that keeps eluding you, maybe try adding a sick beat and see if it sticks in your head.


Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

The Bolero Effect, in which a musical phrase is repeated with increasing intensity until it eventually reaches a crescendo (named, of course, after Ravel’s “Bolero”), can help induce the kind of flow state that make the study hours fly by. Conversely, if you have some repetitive tasks of your own to undertake – whether mental or physical – studies have shown that playing any kind of music can improve your efficiency.


Classical Never Goes Out Of Style

Even though the “Mozart Effect” has been thoroughly debunked, that doesn’t mean throwing on some of Wolfgang Amadeus’ greatest hits won’t do you some good. In fact, even after all these centuries, classical music remains the ultimate music for studying. Why? The steady, repetitive pulse, and general lack of lyrics helps soothe anxiety and produce a sense of calm. Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Brahms, and Debussy are all good places to start when you’re building a focus-friendly classical collection.

Conversely, studies show that music that shifts dramatically in tempo and tone can be highly distracting—so maybe avoid trying to study with all your favourite club bangers roaring in your headphones.


Find Your Genre

Everyone has distinct musical tastes (for example: Nickelback is still touring across the world), and you’ll likely develop your own unique preferences when it comes to study music. The good news is, there are countless genres to choose from that share some of the essential traits we’ve discussed above.

Ambient Music, which focuses on atmosphere and tone instead of musical structure, is full of gentle, repetitive, unobtrusive sound patterns.

If you love movies, Film Scores offer a huge variety of moods and styles to get you through those long days and nights at your desk.

If you’re still thirsting for a little pop music, why not explore some Foreign music? Many people who want to stay energized while they focus will build playlists filled with international artists. After all, lyrics aren’t distracting when you can’t understand them.

In short, the best study music is the music that you enjoy putting on—something that will motivate you to actually sit down and get to work (and maybe even make you look forward to it). If you can find a playlist, album, or artist that meets the criteria above and hits you in the heart, then your study sessions are going to become less of a burden. Maybe even…fun?*

*Fun study sessions not guaranteed.