Rhythms of Concentration

Angel Xin ’26 and Celestine Sutter ’27 (Features Associate) in Features | May 10, 2024

          Picture this: a silent library, scattered with laser-focused students and homework galore. But on further inspection, what do you see? That’s right, a passel of AirPods playing anything from Steve Lacy to Beethoven. The subject of listening to music while working has been discussed by students and teachers for decades: does music boost or hinder concentration? While the answer is largely subjective, some common threads appear in Lawrentians’ approach to the debate. 

          Lucia Chen ’26 always puts away her phone and organizes her work in a list ranked by priority to maximize her productivity. Her taste in music, however, differs significantly depending on the tasks she is hoping to complete, serving as the singular source of variation in her evening schedule. “I prefer to listen to instrumental music when I am writing essays and upbeat music when I am doing the math problem sets...[since] listening to songs without lyrics makes me fall asleep when doing calculations.”  While music is not the make-or- break factor in terms of Chen’s study  quality, it serves as a reminder for her to, in simple terms, “lock in.” Because Chen always listens to the same playlist, the set of soundtracks acts as a cue prompting her to sit down, breathe, and start working. “I always love deciphering the lyricism and understanding the plot behind every song, which could be pretty distracting,” Chen said. Thus, in comparison to her other playlists, her homework tracks consist of songs with repetitive melodies and lyrics. In contrast to her support for music, she is critical of watching television during study sessions. Instead, Chen prefers to distinguish between work and play. “Watching television during times when you should be studying makes the shows a lot less enjoyable because of the guilt attached to the experience,” she explained. 

          Michael Meng ’26 shared a similar stance on the topic, explaining that the effects of music on studying depends on the task at hand. “It’s harder for me to concentrate with music when I am reading, but easier when I am doing math problems,” he specified. In particular, Meng is a strong advocate for studying alongside Lofi music, which does not contain lyrics that may divert his attention from working. Meng also noted that fast-paced tracks and social media breaks distract him from his work mindset, making him “forget that [he] should be studying.” Presently, Meng does not have a specific playlist for studying. He “either listens to the ‘Made For You’ playlists on Spotify or just looks up three-hour study music videos on YouTube.” 

          When doing homework, Jamie Ho ’27 has a similar philosophy. “Indie or soft pop” enhances his focus, whereas more “upward rap” does the job for random tasks that require less concentration. When reading or writing, music “specifically without lyrics” is essential to Ho’s work habits, as lyrics involve an element of comprehension that an instrumental track may not. While he sticks to musical background noise, white noise is popular among some of his friends, such as Ethan Lee ’27, who does homework with waterfall sounds. Music for studying is not one-size-fits-all, as Ho shares that “when others listen to their own music around [him], it is really distracting.” As Ho puts it, while a genre or artist “may work for someone else, it won’t work well for everyone.” 

          By the time you get to Lawrenceville, you probably have your homework routine figured out. However, exploring different ways to focus, whether that be through music or not, is important to establish lasting, effective habits.