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You see them everywhere today – iPod headphones have become as common a piece of daily apparel as footwear. It doesn't matter where you go – supermarkets, workplaces, walking paths, beaches and on all forms of public transport, people are bouncing, swaying or singing along to their music of choice thanks to those small, neat-fitting chunks of plastic that help us switch off from the world and become the centre of our own attention for a while.


And ‘switch off' is exactly what they encourage us to do. In the past six months at least three people have been killed and dozens injured in accidents caused by people walking out in front of traffic because the headphones in their ears had shut them off to the world around them. Many jurisdictions around the world are making it illegal to drive with headphones in because of the simple truth that we can't concentrate while unfiltered music is being pulsed directly into our brains. We won't even mention the damage that headphones are doing to our hearing.


Listening to music as a regular part of daily life has become so entrenched in people's experience that in schools we do constant battle with students who think that listening to music either helps them to work, or has no negative impact on their ability to learn at all. At best, this is a flawed theory; at worst, it's a serious and direct impediment to learning. Here's why:


Music is certainly beneficial to our brains. The rhythm and tonality of music helps the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate more efficiently, making the brain function more effectively. This is especially beneficial for males, where the connection between the two sides of the brain is not as substantial as it is in females (yes, that's why women always complain that we men can't multi-task – don't blame us, blame our brains!)


Listening to music while performing complicated tasks or while revising work can actually improve our performance and help to develop our ability to remember and recall previously learned information. This is because music stimulates the

deeper parts of the consciousness, enabling us to solve more complex problems and store information more successfully. It changes our brain waves to allow us to engage with parts of the brain that are usually hidden, or that normally work quietly in the background. The end result is that we can train our brains to work more efficiently and effectively by listening to music, because the brain, like any part of the body, becomes better with exercise.


The problem is that not all types of music are beneficial. Decades of thorough scientific research into the positive cognitive effects of listening to music have resulted in some very clear guidelines, and this is what students and parents need to be aware of:


·           Music should be in the background, not dominating the environment. Get rid of the headphones and keep it quiet because you can't concentrate while music is being pumped directly into your head.

·           Listening to music through only one earphone (a common excuse used by students) does not help them concentrate – it confuses the brain and makes it run less efficiently. Less efficiency = poor learning. The old excuse of "I can listen to you through one ear and to the music in the other" is simply a lie.

·           Listening to music with lyrics does not help you to learn – it actually has the opposite effect by engaging your concentration in singing along with the words rather than promoting you to think. Even if you aren't singing aloud, your subconscious is, and that means that it's not learning. Likewise, popular music which is based on the alternation of verses with a catchy chorus is equally bad for your concentration because of its combination of lyrics and rhythm, and the repetitive nature of the chorus.

·           Music with a heavy, repetitive rhythm like dance music has a similar effect to music with words – your brain focuses so much on the rhythm and slight variations to it that you are not concentrating on the work you are trying to do. Strong, repetitious rhythms can also lull your brain into a kind of mild hypnosis, effectively sending your higher brain functions to sleep. While your brain is sleeping, you're not learning!


So what should be on your playlist if you're going to make the most of your brain?


·           The music that is actually good for your concentration is complex, orchestrated, harmonised and old – scientific studies show that music from the Baroque and early Classical eras is best, and music by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Mozart is particularly beneficial for your brain.


·           If you don't like that music, don't listen to music while you're studying because you won't be concentrating on what you're meant to be. In a nutshell, music that you can dance to or sing along to is not good for study. Sorry!


One final thought on using background music as a learning tool – under no circumstances will a student ever be allowed to listen to music while they are sitting for an examination, so don't train your brain to function at its best only when there is a soundtrack playing. It can be very easy for the brain to become accustomed to working at its peak only when it is influenced by music, so the best study regime is one where the student also prepares in complete silence to mimic the environment of the examination hall. The brain is highly adaptable, and it learns quickly.


For the same reason it's also a mistake to listen to music while you're in bed at night – if the brain becomes used to drifting into sleep mode while music is playing, it becomes much easier for you to fall asleep while you are driving.


Simon Paterson

Head Teacher, English