• Buck Curley

Music CAN help you study better (and chill out!)

Some of my fondest memories from high school involve music. While I played some sports, acted in one play, and played quite a few video games with friends, I never quite felt like I totally fit in anywhere. I wasn’t a jock, or a theater kid, or a gamer - and because of that I floated between groups always changing a little bit of myself to fit in depending on the setting. However, there was one place that I always felt comfortable, and that was at concerts or listening to music with a couple of friends. There were two or three friends that were always into whatever new, as yet unheard, indie-rock bands were playing in town soon, and I loved being plugged into that music scene in Nashville - “Music City, USA.” My boss during my summer job was the drummer for a band called Feeble Weiner, and one time he got us into a show that we were not old enough to be in. Feeble Weiner was opening for The Pink Spiders, a local band that recently had a song drop on MTV. I showed up wearing my Pink Spiders t-shirt for a Pink Spiders show (no one had taught me how uncool that was yet). We watched our boss play, and then briefly got meet the Pink Spiders before their set started. I don’t think I ever felt more cool in high school than I did at that moment: breaking the rules at an 18+ show, meeting a local rock star, and feeling totally plugged into that scene even if just for a moment.

I never lost that love for music - particularly going to see music - because it’s something I can always get lost in. For a few hours in the dark I can dance until covered in sweat with total strangers who are all purely in a moment together. Music does that - brings people together. The jock and the theater kid can bond over debating which Radiohead album is the best once they realize they both listen to them. It’s a universal. This universality of music is why I always made a point to have something playing over the speakers in my classroom as students walked in for each period. I would change it up constantly. Classical, jazz, indie rock, top 40 pop, hip hop, everything. I found that this music had a calming effect as the students rushed in. The melody and harmony of a great song acting as a complete antithesis to the harsh period bells. Frantic kids suddenly slightly bobbing their heads and their shoulders dropped away from their ears just a tiny bit. Two minutes of relief from the 8 hour stress chamber of a high school.

But more than the momentary ease music can provide, music is a cultural touchstone that can teach more than a lecture can. In my history classes, I tried to always play music from each time period, so students could hopefully feel the emotions and triumphs and tribulations of a certain time and place. The Baroque era was sound tracked by Johann Sebastian Bach as we compared the elaborate and ornate quality of the sounds with the Il Gesu church. Chopin and Liszt played us through a discussion of the sublime and a return to nature in the grimy haze of the Industrial Revolution. In American History, we marched with Sousa on our way into the 20th century where Delta Blues and Jazz greats like Lead Belly and Son House and Charlie “Bird” Parker hopefully gave some insight into the struggles for African Americans in the Jim Crow south and the importance of African American music and culture to the fabric of our country. It also opened avenues to discuss appropriation with Elvis and to duck walk with Chuck Berry. No discussion of the 1960s in America could be complete without thoroughly studying Janis Joplin and Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix and Edwin Starr and The Grateful Dead - and Woodstock and Monterey Pop. I firmly believe you can still feel the revolution and hope in the air with that music - and the coke-fueled, neoconservative opulence of its downfall in Disco.

Casper David Friedrich's The Monk by the Sea is my favorite visual representation of The Sublime.

Music as cultural history was certainly one aspect of the education I hoped to pass onto students, but I also wanted to “educate” students on good music (as I saw it) to break up the Billie Eilish/Old Town Road/Drake heavy playlists that blared from every bluetooth speaker in the hallways and cafeteria. Often this was an exercise in futility - the claims of “what is this music?” were often made more in disgust than awe. But also fairly often, I heard, “I like this Mr. Curley.” One student even got hooked on a band I was really enjoying, Khruangbin, and after downloading their music he informed me he was going to their up-coming concert. And despite not being much of a Dead-Head, I was invited to be part of some students’ Grateful Dead club, where my classroom often became filled with the sounds of Jerry and Co - and lots of laughter - during lunch. These are connections with students that never would have been made if music had not been a large part of my curriculum - and these types of connections are what make teaching worth it.

That music and education are a match made in heaven is not just some anecdotal conclusion either. There are many, many studies that show music can help with concentration and stress relief while studying. The Brain and Creativity Institute at USC is finding in studies that children who receive music education have increased social, emotional, and cognitive development as well as increased neuroplasticity. But it’s not just playing music that is helpful, but simply listening can increase student concentration. Hearing music that you enjoy releases dopamine - the chemical responsible for activating our pleasure and reward centers in the brain. This dopamine hit can help you find a little more motivation to keep going as you study or help you relieve some stress in between study sessions. Music has been found in studies to be effective at lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels. It also can improve the brain’s ability to pay attention and retain information (this study was done with classical Baroque music).

So, in keeping with these findings about the benefits of music for studying and stress relief, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist for you. This is a collection of music that I use when I work and when I want to relax. I hope you find it useful as well. And if you need more help with study skills, stress relief, or test prep please click here to schedule an online tutoring session.

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