Re-thinking creative study breaks

How music became my way to stay engaged

For Sophia, playing piano is the perfect study break.

My second language is music. As a student, it's become the perfect destresser.

When I was three, I was taking violin lessons, and soon after piano, voice and saxophone lessons. It wasn’t something I could just enjoy—it required practice, discipline, and patience—and I grew to resent the task-oriented relationship I had with it. Repeatedly playing the same pieces and scales to absolute perfection removed the creative and expressive elements it once had.

However, when I arrived at Queen’s, there wasn’t anything else I craved more than to play piano and escape my hectic academic and social commitments.

Beyond the obvious difference in subject matter, there are similarities between mastering a song on a given instrument and writing an English essay—both take time and practice to perfect. But the way your brain operationally functions during each activity couldn’t be more different. 

Many students listen to classical or instrumental music while they study to remain engaged. Music unconsciously stimulates your brain without distracting you from your work.

However, I found listening to music alone wasn’t enough to put me in a study-ready mood. This predicament helped me rekindle my relationship with piano. Using it as a creative break from my studies, I played piano instead of watching Netflix—and I found myself reenergized because of it, even without coffee or rest. 

Using piano as a break didn’t disrupt my working mood. Even though I was taking a mental break from whatever I’d been studying, I remained motivated to return to it.

Playing piano requires meticulous attention to music notes—making sense of them, forming a kinetic connection to them, and so on. But while you shift your attention from one note to the other, your brain is simultaneously working consciously and subconsciously.

The left side of your brain deals with logical and spatial thinking, while the right side focuses on tasks that require creativity and self-expression. The communication between the brain’s left and right sides is significantly more developed in pianists than those who don’t play the instrument. 

By playing piano as a brief break from studying, your brain not only exercises logical thinking and attention, but it also begins to exercise creatively. For most, this means increased cognitive exercise and a new found sense of creative accomplishment.

Watching a Netflix show as a study break decreases attentiveness, and results in fatigue and a lack of motivation. Although shows or movies might be more relaxing than playing piano, the brain suffers more in terms of happiness if you’re not engaging in healthy habits.

Rather than effortlessly watching other characters live out their lives on a screen, the happiness you can gain from a creative accomplishment is more worthwhile in the long run. 

Whether it be an adult colouring book or an instrument, engaging in a creative outlet as a break from studying improves the quality of your work and keeps your brain active.

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