Like it or not, exam season is just round the corner. Whether you’re taking your GCSEs or hurtling towards the final month of university, you will need to get started on studying soon and make it count.
Ever since the pandemic and the lockdown that cancelled my A-Level exams, I have needed constant motivation to study and study properly. Most of the time that means heading to the library and having a late night essay session. This usually involves donning my pair of sound cancelling headphones and removing anything that will distract me.
Sometimes though, I need that extra bit of drive and the only thing that’ll cut it is a shiny new playlist. For my last essay, I wrote my way to 2000 words with a backdrop of EDM. For my exams at Christmas, nothing but classical music would do it (…and the occasional night of constantly replaying remixes of Last Christmas).
The Science Behind Sound
It’s not just the say-so of millions of students everywhere, science says that music really does help you to concentrate better. A 2007 Stanford University study found that music does actually help you concentrate better in general. The study found that ‘peak brain activity occurred during a short period between musical movements– when seemingly nothing was happening’. At the transition point between pieces of music in classical concerts, the most amount of people were engaged, as opposed to varying levels of concentration during the piece itself.
Got it. So we’re looking for music with lots of transitions, where music slows down and changes before it meets its end.
…but wouldn’t a piece of music stopping completely be distracting? When a track’s over, I’m at my most distracted. I will always focus more on the fact that there is a new piece of music coming and decide whether I want to skip it. The silence between tracks can also let through the noise of wherever I am, where there might be a crowd of people talking or furniture crashing.
Maybe then, we need a piece of music with a lot of transition indicators where music changes or comes to its end but doesn’t stop. Since there aren’t many pieces of music that last for as long as a study session, maybe a playlist of tracks that flow well into each other would work better.
What’s On Offer?
There are two options I can think of that might fit what we’re looking for:
Number One: Spotify offers a “cross fade” option in settings which allows songs on your playlist to transition seamlessly. It’ll fade one track into another, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be in the same key or tempo. Though you’ll be listening to songs you know that you’ll like. There might not be any transitional elements either if the song transitions into another before its proper end.
Number Two: Finding a pre-mixed compilation of music. You can find these on YouTube, usually they last for about an hour, though you can find other videos that loop for ten.
The last time I studied, I tried both methods and had mixed results. First and foremost, the adverts on YouTube compilations were the most distracting of all. Secondly, anything with lyrics that I knew was immediately off the table. It meant long pauses to lip sync along and ever-so-slightly headbang in the library. Turns out that, scientifically, music without lyrics is the better option anyway! According to a study by the University of Phoenix, listening to music with lyrics whilst you study means that your brain struggles to process the two simultaneously and that overall, your focus is worse.
The Best Option
So what’s the best option overall?
I searched Spotify for music with:
- Lots of transitions
- No silences
- No lyrics
…and found an option that really worked for me.
You might have heard some of Monstercat’s music in old Youtube videos, maybe even in some Minecraft video outros. The sheer amount of the albums they have means that even if you go through their entire catalogue, you probably won’t be able to recognise the start when it repeats. Also, somebody has specifically mixed each compilation track so that the music transitions flawlessly between pieces and songs in the same or related keys are next to each other. This means there’s no dodgy off-key fades between songs and no uncertainty with a livestream.
I used Monstercat’s album mixes to write my way through my recent midterm. The sounds worked really well to cover up when people started talking around me or shuffling their seats. The intensity of the music rarely lets up, which makes for a great motivator. You feel like constantly ploughing forward, despite really not wanting to work (or get out of bed).
On the other hand, with compilations on YouTube , I found that drops in volume and intensity sometimes let sound through and meant my concentration dropped with the music. I would definitely listen to a piece of music in one of these compilations on its own for more of an emotional connection, but for ploughing through something it did me no favours.
In the end, what you listen to is up to you! Electronic music might not be your thing, but if you’re struggling to find focus try following the science and seeing where it leads.
Want some tips on how to calm that exam stress? Check out Meic’s guide to calm here.
Check out GameRant’s best movie soundtracks to study to.