Pump Up the Jam – Kaplan’s New MCAT Study Playlist

Can Katy Perry (or Technotronic, for that matter) help you get into medical school?  Evidence shows that listening to music — especially uplifting music — can help you “show ‘em what you’re worth” on Test Day.

As a former musicology major at Boston University and as an Elite Teacher at Kaplan Test Prep, I’ve always been interested in the intersection of music, the mind and learning science.  While multitasking in the midst of studying (you know — social media, email, texing and the like) can lead to detrimental effects (see, for example, the Journal of Patient Safety article from two months ago showing that physicians have decreased performance and increased mental and psychosocial strain when multitasking on the wards), the processing of music requires a number of skills that are key to success on Test Day.

That’s where the new Kaplan MCAT study playlist comes in.  Newly-released on Songza, this compilation of motivational pop tunes will help put you mentally in gear for your MCAT.  Listen on your way home from the library, between classes or as you’re heading to your Prometric center for the real deal.

How does it help?  Consider the complexity of music.  Our brains have to integrate signals from the temporal lobe (sound frequencies, timbre — sound quality [i.e., what makes a flute sound like a flute instead of a guitar, speech cues in lyrics), parietal lobe (organizational processing of sensory signals — that is, harmony and chord progressions) frontal lobe (anticipation of where the song is going) and limbic system (memories for other songs, picking up on elements of an artist’s “style,” emotional processing).  With all of this neuroanatomy buzzing simultaneously, the brain is highly active, alert and plastic.

These same skills underlie the critical thinking required in the MCAT.  Processing new information, integrating it into your outside knowledge of the science content of the test, and anticipating what the testmakers are going to ask you — these are all skills honed by even passive listening to music.  A 2010 study out of the University of Dayton illustrated “increased … speed of spatial processing and the accuracy of linguistic processing” while listening to background music.  These are clearly skills that will boost that score and get you through the passages faster!

Best of all, you don’t need a musicology degree or advanced understanding of neural circuits to tell us what music does for you.  How does music fit into your study routine?  Are you a background listener?  What other “rituals” do you have when you study?

So check out the new MCAT study playlist on Songza and let us know what you think!

  • Bryant

    Instead of pop music, I prefer classical music or trance music, what do you think about those alternatives?

    • Alex Macnow

      Also excellent choices.  Classical music (even as background music) requires the same neural circuits as mentioned above, even at a higher level.  Consider Chopin’s 24 Preludes (op. 28), Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051) and just about anything by Liszt (personal favorite – Un sospiro from Trois etudes do concert, S. 144).  I’ll admit I don’t know trance as well, but it is essentially designed to be functional background music.  Do you have any suggestions?

  • Amckale

    What about dubstep or techno music? what are your thoughts on that? I have used this music in the past while studying and it seems to help me focus better as well as process memories quicker.

    • Alex Macnow

      Similar to Bryant, I stand by the mantra that any music that helps you focus and — as you said — process memory faster is certainly going to be helpful!  One of the things I’ve always noted in techno/trance/dubstep is a reduced focus on phrasing.  Classical music is defined (much like an MCAT Verbal passage!) by its structure, which is usually rigidly-defined by conventions in musicology — four-bar phrases, patterned cadences, etc.  These other genres often flow more organically, evolving from one “mood” or “style” to the next.  I’d be interested to see if that plays any role in its effect on the brain!

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