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Back to School, Use Music to Get Better Grades

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Want to feel more attentive this school year, less scattered and more energized? Perhaps the answer is as close as your favorite music.

This article is not about using music get smarter. Rather it is about how to use music to optimize some of your natural skills that already help make you smart, as well as more successful.

The first of these skills and, one of the most important in the armamentarium, is your ability to be attentive. As you sit in the classroom, for example, or at home in front of a computer screen working on a project, what you pay attention to can largely determine what you think, what emotions you feel, and what behaviors you engage in. It will affect your motivation and help you clarify your goals and build the scaffold to get you there - or not.

If you want to boost your focus -- and who wouldn't? -- whether for school or really anything else, your first job, funny as it may seem, is to pay attention to how you are paying attention. The wider the variety of circumstances you are able to do this in the better.

Start by asking yourself:
  • How do I feel? Alert? Relaxed? Wired? Blah?
  • Do I have enough mental energy to accomplish my current goal? Do I have too much?
  • Am I anxious? Jumpy?
  • Am I content?
  • Do I feel focused or am I scattered or distracted?

Such questions will help you get in touch with your mindset as you begin and work through certain tasks.

What you're going for is a mindset that is concurrently calm and energized enough to accomplish your task. When I feel this way, it seems things get done most effortlessly. So I strive for this state of mind and one way I am able to trigger it is with my favorite music.

In my book, Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, my co-authors and I discuss the science of this optimized mindset and how it is able to positively affect your ability to organize and recall material, without distraction, whether the material is academic or otherwise. The trick is to be able to access your state of mind at a specific moment and figuring out which way you need to go (up or down) to hit your brain's sweet spot of calm, energized flow as you work on your goals. Using music makes sense because it is natural and has no side effect(s). You can also carry it right in your pocket with you everywhere, so that you will have it whenever and wherever you need.

The following are two meditations you can try this school year, one the night before classes and the other immediately before and after.

Meditation for the night before your classes:

Put on some relaxing music. For me, instrumentals work best. Then consider the next day's classes. Ask yourself: Which way do I have to go to optimize my mindset for each, up (energizing focus) or down (relaxing). What songs do I already know can help me reach that state of mind? Which have the right rhythms, tempos, and send the message I need to be hearing? Put these songs on your iPod. Play them the night before as you visualize yourself in your class mentally optimized and flowing through your work.

If you are going for more alertness, try this trick. I like using it whenever I need a fast attentional energy boost: As you are visualizing yourself flowing through your class, see the entire scene in your mind as though you were looking through a bright red lens -- everything turns red. Now, take a deep breath and breathe the whole picture in (like charged, radiant fog) and feel it streaming energy into your body and mind.

If you see yourself as needing to relax, do the above visualization seeing yourself perfectly calm and focused. Then see the image through a green (calming) lens and continue the meditation.

Play your songs once before your class and once after, if that is possible. Use your visualization as well, if you need. You can also try playing your songs for seven to 10 minutes before classes begin and again at noon. This will help set you off in a good frame of mind for morning classes and help give you the charge you need for afternoon.

Meditation for the beginning of each class:

Take a few moments and simply ask yourself:

  1. What is the day's goal for this class and what are my responsibilities (e.g., I am listening to a talk on Edgar Allen Poe and taking notes for a test)?
  2. How does this goal link to larger goals in my life (e.g., I can use the information in another course for a term paper I am writing and THAT will make life easier and better; I can ace my English class, qualify for higher level classes I want next year, graduate with honors, get into the college or grad school I desire, get the job I desire, etc.)? On the scale of things, how important are these goals to your life -- present and in the future? Often it is hard to get motivated unless we see how information matters to us personally and is linked to larger personal concerns. So splurge on this one.
  3. What are the demands of my environment (e.g., distracters that need to be blocked, large room -- need to listen more closely to hear, speak only when it is my turn, my views are considered more radical by others in this class as opposed to other classes where my ideas are in the majority, etc. )?
  4. What are the expectations of my teacher (that I take notes, ask questions, provide comments--only with softer more inviting language, or that today I just listen and refrain from questioning and comment, and so on)?
  5. What have I done in the past that helped me achieve these goals? What has interfered? Do what works.

Then, ask yourself which way you need to go to hit your optimum relaxed-yet-energized mindset. Hear the songs in your mind. Remember to add color. Breathe. Enjoy.

Stay tuned: In a series of upcoming articles, I will explore how you can use music to help with memorization, organization, and the roller coaster of emotions you will probably experience at school this year.

In my previous post, "Make the Best Jogging Playlist Ever," I included information about how you can put a little science behind your playlists to amplify how they influence you physically and behaviorally. Remember, it's really all about training the mind to act the way you want it to in specific daily situations -- and music, when used in this way, becomes your conditioning tool. You may wish to take a look at some of those earlier suggestions, as they will work with any playlist you are creating, including this one.

Boost Your Focus Sample Playlist
Going "Up"

  • Mozart Sonata in D Major
  • Sagittarius, Nish (alphazone remix)
  • Deadline, Dutch Force
  • No Way Back, Foo Fighters
Going "Down"
  • Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber
  • Canon in D Major, Pachelbel
  • Pleiadian Harp, Gerald Jay Markoe
  • Every Breath You Take, Sting

Worth noting: In everyday conversation, most of us associate attentional strength with whether we feel focused or scattered, how well we can concentrate on our tennis game, math problem or stay on top of a discussion. But what we may not always consider is how our attention also affects our relationships, feelings of contentment or irritability, pain management, and whether we feel energized or depressed. We seldom attach health and wellness issues to how we pay attention.

If you are interested in an in-depth discussion of these wellness areas and how your attention might affect them, you may want to check out my book, Can I Have Your Attention? - How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Concentration (Career Press, 2009).

For more by Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., click here.

For more on the mind, click here.