Music and management

A neuroscientist on how music can help students

Kelly Wynne, Features Editor

Neuroscientist, music enthusiast and renowned author Daniel Levitin visited the MAC on April 14 to talk with attendees about how music affects the brain. Levitin’s four books cover everything from basic psychology, music and how to organize one’s life. Courier Features Editor Kelly Wynne sat down with Levitin to discuss how music can help college students in life.

Kelly Wynne: How do you think music affects college students?

Daniel Levitin: Well I think it’s very personal and very individual. To begin with, some people don’t like music at all; we think maybe 10 percent of the population. They just don’t get it. They don’t understand what the rest of us are spending our money on. Some people like music in the background. Some like to immerse themselves in it. Some people use it to get through their workout to help motivate them. They use it as motivation to get out of bed and some people use it to calm down and relax. Or people still make mixtapes, although these days they aren’t on tapes they’re on USB keys or in the cloud, to tell somebody special how they feel about them. If you’re not a songwriter, what do you do? You find somebody else who wrote it and give it to somebody. So I think there’s a wide range of experience. It’s, personal and it changed from person to person and within a person, the way music affects you can change over the lifetime.

KW: Is there a certain type of music you think is more beneficial than others? For instance, music you would choose for relaxing versus studying for a test.

DL: On the studying for a test thing, the evidence is really clear that having music on while you are studying is bad. It actually interferes with learning. The problem is that people who like music can like studying with it and find it pleasant to study with music, so they think that they’re studying better, but they’re not. I mean there’s hundreds of studies on this now. It’s better to study without the music, and then take a 15-minute break and listen to music to refresh your head, and then get back to the studying. Having the music on in the background, although it’s more fun, is not more effective.

KW: What do you think stressed students can do to work more efficiently and stay calm, even if they have a million things going on?

DL: This is more the topic of my newest book “The Organized Mind,” about how to be efficient and not be stressed. I think the problem is that all of us feel like there’s more to do in the day than can possibly get done. I don’t know anybody who puts their head on the pillow at night and says, “Boy, I got everything done that I needed to get done.” I don’t know anybody who has said that in 10 years. There’s just this long list of things you don’t quite get to. And that’s what induces the stress. It’s the gap between what you feel you need to do and what you actually do, and it builds every day. So, I think that the trick there is to really take stock of everything that you have to do by not keeping it in your head. Write it down. If it’s in your head, it’s harder to deal with. Get it out there in the world and look at it, whether it’s on paper or on the computer. Just look at all the things you have to do and then prioritize them for tomorrow. Say “these are the most important things I have to do tomorrow,” and do that before you go to bed at night. When you wake up in the morning look at the list again. You might have changed your mind; maybe No. 3 has got to move over to No.6. No. 2 has to be No. 1. Then, do the things in order. Trust your judgment. At the end of the day you won’t have gotten everything done, but you’ll have gotten the most important things done by definition. You’ll find that you’re a lot less stressed. Your advantage is that when you’re working on that one thing, you’re mind isn’t racing and trying to figure out “well is there something else I should be doing? And I have to do this and I have to do that,” because whatever you’re doing at the moment is the most important thing you could be doing. You prioritized it. The only thing I would add to that is that it’s good to set a time limit, because you’re never going to study your calculus until it’s done. Calculus is never done. Maybe you’ll study it for an hour, and then you’ll take a break, and move on to something else.

KW: Is there anything you wish you knew as a college student?

DL: Oh yeah. That’s a good question. I wish that I had managed my time better. For me, and I think for so many college students, there’s so many thing to do. We’re all very good rationalizers. When I was a college student we all lived on campus so a friend would come by and say, “Hey, lets go out for ice cream.” I would say, “Oh no, I’m studying,” but he had never asked me to do that before, it was a one semester thing. You know, I should be able to go out for ice cream one night, right? So it’s a half an hour to get there, and a half an hour line around the block cause it’s a popular place. We get the ice cream, we come back, and I’ve lost an hour and a half or 2 hours of what was going to be my study time. The cumulative effect of it all was that it was different groups of people that I was going out and doing stuff with, and each one seemed perfectly innocent on it’s own, but at the end of the month I realized I hadn’t spent as much time studying as anyone else or as much as I needed to. I was so good at justifying, and I saw each of them as individual activities rather than as all contributing to the category of goofing off. I understood that you need to have balance, I just didn’t understand how to portion it. What I should have said was, “I’m going to allow myself X hours for entertainment this week.” Time is like money. It’s either in your budget or it’s not.

KW: Is there anything else you would like college students reading this to know?

DL: This is something that old people say to college students, so it may not carry any weight because I’ll just sound like your grandpa talking or something, but when you’re 18 and 19 it seems like everything going on has dire consequences. If you don’t get into the right class or the right college or you don’t meet the right person your whole life is going to spin out of control. What I came to realize, mostly through a series of failures in my life, was that there are an infinite number of ways to end up in a particular spot in your life. If you have a vision of where you want to be when you’re 30 or 40, there’s lots of different ways to get there, it’s not just the narrow, myopic view that you have of things. And the more important thing is that, with time, everybody I know has discovered that there are things they wanted to do even more than what they thought they wanted to do but they didn’t even know about them yet because they hadn’t had enough experience. So just take a chill pill when things don’t work out because they will eventually.