Many people listen to music while they’re carrying out a task, whether they’re studying for an exam, driving a vehicle or even reading a book. Many of these people argue that background music helps them focus.
Why, though? When you think about it, that doesn’t make much sense. Why would having two things to concentrate on make you more focused, not less? Some people even go so far as to say that not having music on is more distracting. So what’s going on there?
It’s not clear why the brain likes music so much in the first place, although it clearly does. Interestingly, there’s a specific spectrum of musical properties that the brain prefers. Experiments by Maria Witek and colleagues reveal that there needs to be a medium level of syncopation in music to elicit a pleasure response and associated body movement in individuals. What this means in plain English is: music needs to be funky, but not too funky, for people to like it enough to make them want to dance.
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Your own experience will probably back this up. Simple, monotonous beats, like listening to a metronome, aren’t really entertaining. They have low levels of syncopation and certainly don’t make you want to dance. In contrast, chaotic and unpredictable music, like free jazz, has high levels of syncopation, can be extremely off-putting and rarely, if ever, entices people to dance.
The middle ground (funk music like James Brown is what the experimenters reference most) hits the sweet spot between predictable and chaotic, for which the brain has a strong preference. Most modern pop falls somewhere within this range, no doubt.
Why would music help us concentrate, though? One argument is to do with attention.
For all its amazing abilities, the brain hasn’t really evolved to take in abstract information or spend prolonged periods thinking about one thing. We seem to have two attention systems: a conscious one that enables us to direct our focus towards things we know we want to concentrate on and an unconscious one that shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant. The unconscious one is simpler, more fundamental, and linked to emotional processing rather than higher reasoning. It also operates faster. So when you hear a noise when you’re alone at home, you’re paying attention to it long before you’re able to work out what it might have been. You can’t help it.
The trouble is, while our conscious attention is focused on the task in hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. And if what we’re doing is unpleasant or dull – so you’re already having to force your attention to stay fixed on it – the unconscious attention system is even more potent. This means that a distraction doesn’t need to be as stimulating to divert your attention on to something else.
Some people argue that one of the best music genres for concentration is the video game soundtrack
Have you ever worked in an open-plan office and been working on a very important task, only to be driven slowly mad by a co-worker constantly sniffing, or sipping their coffee, or clipping their nails? Something quite innocuous suddenly becomes much more infuriating when you’re trying to work on something your brain doesn’t necessarily enjoy.
Music is a very useful tool in such situations. It provides non-invasive noise and pleasurable feelings, to effectively neutralise the unconscious attention system’s ability to distract us. It’s much like giving small children a new toy to play with while you’re trying to get some work done without them disturbing you.
Type of music
However, it’s not just a matter of providing any old background noise to keep distractions at bay. A lot of companies have tried using pink noise (pdf) – a less invasive version of white noise – broadcasting it around the workplace to reduce distractions and boost productivity. But views on the effectiveness of this approach are mixed at best.
It seems clear that the type of noise, or music, is important. This may seem obvious: someone listening to classical music while they work wouldn’t seem at all unusual, but if they were listening to thrash metal it would be thought very strange indeed.
While the nature and style of the music can cause specific responses in the brain (funky music compels you to dance, sad music makes you melancholy, motivational music makes you want to keep fit), some studies suggest that it really is down to personal preference. Music you like increases focus, while music you don’t impedes it. Given the extreme variation in musical preferences from person to person, exposing your workforce or classroom to a single type of music would obviously end up with mixed results.
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Music also has a big impact on mood – truly bleak music could sap your enthusiasm for your task. Something else to look out for is music with catchy lyrics. Musical pieces without wordsmight be better working companions, as human speech and vocalisation is something our brains pay particular attention to.
Video game soundtracks
Some people argue that one of the best music genres for concentration is the video game soundtrack. This makes sense, when you consider the purpose of the video game music: to help create an immersive environment and to facilitate but not distract from a task that requires constant attention and focus.
Limitations in the technology used for early games consoles meant the music also tended to be fairly simplistic in its melodies – think Tetris or Mario. In a somewhat Darwinian way, the music in video games has been refined over decades to be pleasant, entertaining, but not distracting. The composers have (probably unintentionally) been manipulating the attention systems in the brains of players for years now.
There are signs that, as technology progresses, this type of theme music is being abandoned, with games producers opting for anything from big orchestral pieces to hip-hop. The challenge will be to maintain the delicate balance of stimulation without distraction. To achieve this, games composers will need to stay focused. Which is ironic.
Dean Burnett’s first book, The Idiot Brain, all about the weird and confusing properties of the brain, is available now in the UK and the US.
Luckily, music can help put us back on a more productive track.
Studies out of the University of Birmingham, England, show that music is effective in raising efficiency in repetitive work — so if you're mindlessly checking email or filling out a spreadsheet, adding some tunes will make your task go by that much faster.
But when it comes to tasks that require more brainpower, finding that perfect playlist is not so easy.
Luckily, we have science at our disposal to help.
Based on some of what we know about how music affects productivity, you should try funneling this kind of music through your headphones the next time you're feeling unproductive:
Songs that include sounds of nature.
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently discovered that adding a natural element could boost moods and focus.
Sounds of nature can mask intelligible speech just as well as white noise while also enhancing cognitive functioning, optimizing the ability to concentrate, and increasing overall worker satisfaction, the researchers found. The mountain stream sound researchers used in their study also possessed enough randomness that it didn't distract test subjects.
You could try simply listeining to recordings of nature sounds, or check out this tranquil background music that incorporates sounds of water:
Songs you enjoy.
Listening to music you like can make you feel better.
Teresa Lesiuk, an assistant professor in the music therapy program at the University of Miami, found that personal choice in music is important, especially in those who are moderately skilled at their jobs. Generally participants in her studies who listened to music they enjoyed completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn't because the music improved their mood.
"When you're stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention," she told the New York Times. "When you're in a positive mood, you're able to take in more options."
Songs you don't really care about.
Different research suggests, however, that music you're ambivalent about could be best.
Researchers from Fu Jen Catholic University in Xinzhuang City, Taiwan, studied how listener's fondness for music affected their concentration. They found when workers strongly liked or disliked the music they heard in the background they became more distracted by it.
Songs without lyrics.
Words are distracting.
According to research from Cambridge Sound Management, noise in general isn't to blame when it comes to lost productivity — it's how intelligible the words are that forces us to shift focus from our work to figuring out what someone is saying. Speech distracts about 48% of office workers according to Cambridge's 2008 study.
When masking your neighbor's conversation with music, it follows then that you not do so with music that has lyrics — your focus would simply shift from the conversation to the words in a song.
This playlist of lyric-less music may provide the productivity boost you need:
Songs with a specific tempo.
Music tempo can have varying affects on your arousal.
One study by Canadian researchers found subjects performed better on IQ tests while listening to up-tempo music. If your work requires you to be more upbeat, you could try listening to music that matches this tempo. Baroque music, for example, is a popular choice for many needing to get work done.
In fact in a small study by researchers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Harbor Hospital in Baltimore, and the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, the radiologists they studied reported an improvement in their work and mood when they listened to baroque music. This playlist offers a nice sampling:
Another study by researchers from BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, Malaysia, saw subjects report a dramatic reduction in feelings of stress and an increased sense of physical relaxation when they listened to music that played around 60 beats per minute. In classical music terms, you would refer this as "larghetto," which translates to not very fast or somewhat slowly.
If you prefer to feel more relaxed while you work, you could try one of Focus @ Will's playlists dedicated to concentration:
Songs played at medium volume.
Noise level matters.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, found that moderate noise levels are just right for creative thinking.
While both high and moderate noise levels have been found to open people's minds to more abstract thinking, high noise levels decrease the brain's ability to process information.