There has been some research into the effects of background music on learning, in particular the Mozart Effect with young children. Essentially babies focus on novelty when learning and the complexity of classical music provides plenty of novelty for their young ears. It boosts mental arousal which means, in theory, they are more attentive generally.
From the research on human performance we learn that faster tempo music helps to boost mental arousal levels when tackling boring tasks, so you could try this with the dull stuff. It doesn’t have to be classical musical, although it should be instrumental as words tend to get in the way. You want to focus on the learning material not the chorus to your favourite rock anthem (such as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out). You could also try putting on your favourite music with the dull stuff. It should help a little with motivation and a little of the music’s magic may even rub off on the dull material. After all, we do tend to learn more effectively when we are in a positive state.
For the more complex material requiring a greater degree of concentration, music with a slower tempo would be more useful, for two main reasons. Firstly, it will help to focus attention and blank out background distractions. Secondly, when trying to get to grips with tougher material to study, which can be stressful, slower music can help to relax us and focus our attention.
There are CD collections of slower classical pieces, such as largos and adagio. Music stores also often have a ‘Meditation’ rack in their classical section which are ideal. My recommendations are confined to European classical music but any type of instrumental music is fine. There’s also a wealth of new-age type meditation and relaxation music that you could use, if that’s your thing.
Overall, it’s important to remember that music tastes are very personal. So, when choosing music for studying, go for something you like or at least feel neutral about. It’s really all about helping you to focus and improving the leady environment and experience. Forcing yourself to listen to music that irritates you is going prove more of a hindrance than a help. Ideally make yourself short collections that last around 30 minutes and study intensely for this time, then take a short break. See also my study skills tips for further details on this technique of short study periods followed by short breaks.
Try pieces like: Vivaldi’s Largo from ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons; Bach’s Air on a G String (no jokes please); Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for Strings, or Pachelbel’s Canon in D. You could also try ambient music such as Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.
PS: After reviewing the evidence on subliminal learning tapes for Evidence of Things Not Seen, we concluded that there was no evidence to support the bold assertions made. Any effect, if any, is most likely down to the placebo effect and you’d be better off just making your own compilation tape of favourite stuff, as outlined above. Being in a positive mental attitude is far more beneficial for learning.