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Ohio State professors, students weigh merits of studying music

Though studying music and listening to music while taking tests were both recently shown to improve students’ grades, some students and professors at Ohio State said they’d need to know more before they start blasting Beethoven.

Listening to music while taking an exam could help students raise their grades, while those who study music were found to have better grades across the board, according to recent studies published by Behavioural Brain Research.

Four researchers published a study in May 2013 that showed playing music was correlated with students being able to handle tests under stressful conditions longer and perform better. The study looked at 64 fifth-year high school students split into two groups, one of which listened to calm music and the other of which listened to attention-drawing music while answering 12 scientific multiple choice questions.

The same researchers published a study in late 2013 that showed students studying music earned better grades in all subjects. It looked at students in a secondary school and compared those who took music classes to those who did not, analyzing their grades in all of their classes over three years.

OSU School of Music director Richard Blatti said musicians tend to excel in their careers and studies for many reasons, but added many musicians proved their academic aptitude before going through any musical training.

“To say that musicians do well in school because they study music is not a conclusion which stands up to scientific scrutiny,” Blatti said.

David Huron, a music professor, said there needs to be more research done on the topic of how much musical training makes a significant difference.

He said there is currently no proof of correlation versus causation in the matter, which can be demonstrated by another example: while there are strong correlations between death by drowning and eating ice cream, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Eating ice cream doesn’t cause people to drown. Instead, they both have a common cause, namely warm summer days. Warm summer days encourage people to go swimming and also to eat ice cream. One doesn’t cause the other,” Huron said.

Huron said similarly, students playing musical instruments won’t necessarily excel grade-wise. There are other factors studies should examine, such as how much time a student practices an instrument versus how much time a student studies.

As far as encouraging professors to play music during exams, Huron said that could pose a problem because not everyone likes the same kinds of music.

Justin Hanf, a fourth-year in education, plays snare drums for the OSU Athletic Band and said he likes listening to music while walking between classes.

“I feel it helps me relax and focus more before my class,” Hanf said.

Hanf said the study’s findings about students who play a musical instrument performing better in school are accurate in his experience.

“I feel like (playing an instrument) has had an impact on my grades,” he said.

Mark Risser, a graduate teaching associate in the Department of Statistics at OSU, plays music for his class before he starts teaching. Risser said he plays the music because he wants to get students ready to learn.

“It’s an easy way to engage students’ brains, wake them up and establish a signal that class is about to begin,” Risser said.

Risser also said he thinks playing music could help improve students’ grades.

“My non-expert reason for saying this would be that music stimulates a unique part of the brain and this stimulation, together with the stimulation provided by other studying, can improve learning,” Risser said.

Risser said, though, he hasn’t ever played music during class and probably wouldn’t play music during an exam.

“I feel that it could be distracting and detrimental to some students,” he said.

Huron said no matter what the effect on grades, it’s worth it to study music.

“Learning to play music is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t improve your math abilities or your golf swing,” Huron said. “Music is simply one of life’s pleasures and ought to be encouraged for the sheer joy of it.”

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