HSC exam guide: how to use music to prepare for exams

Music can help if you’re pulling a late-night study session. Carolyn Williams/Flickr, CC BY

Students, the impending horror of exams is nearly upon you. But music can help you out. To put it simply, turn to tunes to terminate the terror of term-time. As with so many psychological phenomena that have both a cognitive and an emotional component, music can help you to think and feel better during what many regard as the low point of their time on this earth.

Will music help me study?

What determines whether music helps or hinders studying is how much physiological arousal it produces. As music gets louder, faster or more raucous it creates more arousal: think hard rock, heavy dance beats and machine-gun rapping styles.

Loud rock or dance music can interrupt your focus.

Similarly, if the music is unfamiliar to you, then your brain has to devote more processing resource to listening to it. This reduces the amount of attention you can pay to the books. Conversely, music is less arousing if it is slow, smooth and steady, and it also places a lower demands on your brain if you know it well already.

So how does this influence your ability to study? The simple answer is that it depends on the nature of what you’re doing.

If the material you are trying to learn is difficult or requires close attention to detail, give music a miss. Any music you hear will reduce the processing capacity available to your brain to deal with your school work, make it difficult for you to concentrate and lead to errors. The more arousing the music, the more detrimental the effect.

However, if what you are trying to learn is repetitive or boring, then listening to some arousing music could give you just the lift you need to stay on-task. Similarly, if you’re pulling a late-night cramming session, then you’ll be sleepy and so music might just keep your brain running at optimum speed.

Preparing for exams is an emotional time

Preparing for exams is just as much an emotional task as an intellectual one, and music can help here also. Everyone needs down time and so you can of course listen to music to have some fun or get rid of some frustration at the end of the day.

You could also pick up your phone or laptop and compose some music. The escape and emotional release will soon help you to remember that before you know it the exams will be a distant memory and you’ll be outside again with your mates in the summer sunshine.

Don’t panic: calm, familiar music can help soothe pre-exam nerves.

Music might also be able to help you on the day of the exam, so take your music player with you to the exam venue. Research carried out in dentists’ waiting rooms shows the dramatic effect that music can have in alleviating anxiety about imminent nerve-wracking events. It reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lets you go into the exam itself with a clearer head: if you’re super-nervous, then listen to some low arousal music and focus on the music itself in order to distract yourself. If instead you’re coming to the exam on the back of a sleepless night, then listen to some arousing music to wake yourself up.

We also know that you will more effectively recall the material you have been revising if you can simulate the context in which you learned it initially. If you listened to a lot to a particular artist while you were revising, then listen to them again immediately outside the exam hall: this context should help you remember the material you have been cramming.

Make a study playlist

You can also get a lot of help from all that software that came bundled with your phone and laptop. Prepare your playlists now and turn shuffle on if you need to boost your arousal or off if you want to minimise distraction.

If you’re using Spotify, iTunes Radio or something similar, then in order to keep your focus on the revision you should set the preferences for only a low level of discovery and turn off Facebook notifications. If you need a boost, then turn up the level of discovery (but remember: keep Facebook turned off).

This is part of The Conversation’s Exam Guide. Read the other pieces in the series here.