I am a chartered librarian by profession, a lapsed musician, and at Arden University a manager of all things related to Academic Skills – a somewhat eclectic combination! Some 28 years ago when I graduated with a BA (hons) in Music, I would never have dreamt that I would be doing what I do now. I entered Higher Education as a nervous, naïve undergraduate having only written essays during my A-Levels. Back then in the early 1990’s there was little support available – let alone technology to help – so it amounted to a steep learning curve. Little did I know that extreme exposure to music, of all genres, would be my saviour, my friend, and my inspiration. Most of all, due to the nature of the course, it was also somewhere to find solace and flow in parallel with all my academic assignments.
I learned to read music at the age of 5 – at the same time I learned to read – and I’ve always seen the two skills as very similar. For as long as I can remember, both have been part of my everyday life. Music has seen me through the highs and lows of life and through a lot of writing - including two dissertations (I’m currently listening to an eclectic mix of classical, pop, rock and ephemera whilst writing this!).
So how can music relate to academic writing? When approaching this blog, I reflected on how music has aided my academic studies. Obviously, there was a lot of listening involved, and we were often asked to listen to and analyse the music we were studying, then discuss and present our thoughts in the form of an essay. Listening to music 28 years ago wasn’t quite as easy as it is today – back then, I had to trek to the music library to borrow worn out cassettes and scratched CDs. However, music and academic writing both use a similar structure. We can think of both as a journey with a beginning, middle and an end – plus all the important elements in between.
As we know, all academic essays have a structure. This is just as true for narrative essays as it is for reflective pieces. Like an essay, most pieces of music also have a structure, regardless of genre. For example, pop music is usually based on the verse, chorus, verse structure and any piece of music will also have various rules relating to key, tempo and rhythm. Structure is particularly important in symphonies and concertos written in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic genres. Like essays, symphonies and concertos always have an introduction - in the case of a symphony, the main theme is introduced in the first movement, which is known as the exposition. This is then developed and reworked throughout the piece. Similarly, in an essay, the introduction is where you draw the reader in, giving them a taste of what is to come.
Essays also feature paragraphs, statements, arguments, and themes weaving in and out. This is also the case in music, where the themes of a symphony are explored using different phrasing, key changes, time changes and dynamics, all of which add variety and meaning to the music. This is comparable to research and supporting citations in an essay. Juxtaposition is also important both in music and in essay writing. In essays, we develop an argument by piecing together information from different perspectives, leading to a critical conclusion. In a symphony, the first movement introduces the themes, the second movement develops them (usually in a slow and lyrical way), leading to a third and forth movement, which sees the themes grow in intensity. In both cases we see information – data in essays, melodies in music – develop and change in a logical way.
Another comparison with academic skills and music is that “practice makes perfect” in both cases. I have played various instruments since the age of 5, and I soon learned that to get better I had to practice! Throughout my childhood and teens I wasn’t always keen to do this, but with parental nagging I soon realised the importance of it. Likewise, it is important to draft, redraft, edit, and check your work before you submit it. As a naïve undergraduate, this was something I was unaccustomed to, but by the end of the three years at University drafting became second nature and my grades improved. As there was a large practical element in a music degree, I continued to do lots of practice!
Two other incredibly useful skills which I’ve learnt from being a musician are discipline and timekeeping. The need to concentrate in orchestras, watch the conductor, ensure you’re playing in sync with everyone else, counting the bars when you’re not playing, and watching out for key changes and accidentals have all enabled me to concentrate, apply myself and become an efficient multitasker! It’s important to make time to practice and to learn when to ask for help if you’re struggling – this is true regardless of your subject.
Finally, there is a profound link between music and the brain. Between 1993 and 1998 Rauscher, et al. (1993, cited in Jausovec, et al.) investigated the effect of listening to the music of Mozart on spatial reasoning, and found a positive correlation – this became known as the became known as the “Mozart Effect”. These studies have been subsequently examined and scrutinised by various researchers, and the debate over the experiment’s validity will likely continue for many years to come (Shi, 2020).
What is true, however, is that music can help with concentration and motivation – your choice of study music will depend on your personal tastes! Personally, when I need to concentrate, I like to listen to ambient, minimalistic music with no lyrics, and if I have a deadline I like to listen to upbeat, fast moving music that motivates and inspires me to complete not only a piece of academic writing but any task that I am doing. Over the past six months, I have worked from home and have had the pleasure of being able to do this more often. I enjoy the ability of “losing” myself in my music, being able to shut out the world and get on with the task in hand.
Overall, listening to music is very much part of my life, and is one of life’s pleasures. With streaming services, you can discover a whole world of new music plus the chance to revisit music you may have forgotten about - always a delight. Music for everyone of any age has huge benefits and is a multipurpose entity – an aid to motivate, relax, read, write, and above all to enjoy, wherever and whenever you wish.
Jausovec N, Jausovec K, Gerlic I. (2006) ‘The influence of Mozart's music on brain activity in the process of learning’, Clinical Neurophysiology, 117(12), pp. 2703-14. Available at: Jausovec_mozarteffect2006-with-cover-page-v2.pdf (d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net) (Accessed: 13 December 2021).
Shi, W. Y. (2020) ‘Re-Examining the Mozart Effect: The Sonata in D Major, K.448 and the Influence of Rhythm on Spatial Intelligence’, Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 12(2), p. 121. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.669329846&authtype=sso&custid=ns019211&site=eds-live (Accessed: 10 December 2021).Academic Writing