Grad School Playlist: Why We Need Music To Survive Grad School

By: Niki Fritz

When I asked Josh Sites about the role of music in his life, he gave me one of those furrow-browed, overly pensive looks he dons when he is about to unload some heavy thoughts or take serious snapchats with his cats. Here it was the former.

“It is hard to describe the role of a limb because that is what [music] feels like,” Josh explains. “Music is constant in my life. Based on what other people describe as the effects of meditation, that is how music functions for me.”

For Josh, who is an active listener, creator and researcher of music, beats, melodies and lyrics have a persistent presence in his daily life. He has playlists he has curated for almost every activity in his life, from writing and reading papers to driving or cooking dinner. For Josh, music sets the beat for his life, it blots out the unnecessary noise and allows him to focus.

Josh explains that there may be some evolutionary reasons why music is present in almost every civilization and is invariably an important part of culture. The reproductive-value perspective on music suggests that ability to produce pleasing music demonstrates fitness to a mate, as it shows good coordination, memory and ability to evoke positive emotions in others. Josh explains that the proof is in the Mick Jagger-filled pudding.

Interestingly enough only animals who are verbal learners, who communicate through learned vocal expression, can appreciate music and beats. In other words,

“We need more cowbell.”

while dolphins, elephants, song birds and humans appreciate rhythm, our primate ancestors, who didn’t use learned vocal signals, couldn’t beat a cowbell to save the band (or please Christopher Walken).  There is something about verbal communication that allows the brain to appreciate beats. To some this is proof that music is just “evolutionary cheesecake,” a happy accidental by-product of the more important adaptation of communication.

Whether music is a helpful soundtrack to mating or just some evolutionary bonus, humans have incorporated music into their lives to make funerals more mournful, holidays more nostalgic, parties more dance-a-rific and, often for grad students, to make studying and writing more tolerable and even productive.

Josh explains that music may actually help increase focus. “[Music] helps me focus by blocking internal thoughts and other visual and audio stimuli,” Josh says. “It is like giving a little kid a toy and saying ‘Here semi-subconscious, do this instead!’”

So while your conscious brain focuses on the demanding academic task at hand, your semi-subconscious is attending to music. That enables your brain to ignore distractions like Facebook, your adorable pooch, or the box of wine calling your name.

Of course, we all know different academic tasks call for different types of music. For Josh, he can’t listen to music with lyrics while he is writing. His brain tries to process both the lyrics and the words he is writing, jumbling them all up in the process. After soliciting the Telecom grad students for “music to write to” it seems, many of Josh’s fellow students agree. Check out the IU Telecom Academic Writing Playlist for 11 all instrumental jams that are the perfect background to your APA-style writing.

However, when it comes to grading, some grad students are a bit more tolerant of lyrics especially if they are the kind of worn-in words that the brain knows so well that it just glides over them. Many of the songs submitted for the IU Telecom Grading playlist have lyrics and a bit more upbeat tempo, suggesting perhaps grad students need a little pick me up when wading through 90 final papers about media life. If you are in need of some grading assistance, check out some of your colleagues’ favorite jams.

What all of this comes down to, as Josh explains it, is flow.

“Flow is what most refer to as ‘being in the zone.’ It’s similar to mindfulness. You forget about everything except what is happening in the moment,” Josh says. “Music invites you to enter a moment. It has a discrete beginning and end; you can just be there in the moment.”

With studying or grading, music can help decrease the inhibitors to flow, be they physical or mental. Once in flow, thanks to the aide of Tycho or John Bulter, you can be present and productive, happy to stay engaged with what is in front of you. While Josh is quick to note flow can’t be directly measured (not yet at least), it is often self-reported and a common experience especially among musicians.

Beyond flow and productivity, music is also a beloved form of mood management for many.

“Music can be a detox, a way to get the crummy mood out of you. I emote through the song and when the song ends, I’ve processed and I can move forward” Josh explains.

With just two weeks left of the semester and plenty of stress and emotion to go around, music may just be the best tool to release some of those anxious feelings. Check out the IU Telecom’s “Pumped Up” playlist for some solid beats including the ever-popular T. Swift and the legendary Bowie. Just consider it an early holiday present from the IU Telecom blog.

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