Can Music Really Help You Focus?

Fab Giovanetti

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Music and sound have been essential features of my routine.

One of my first journalistic experiences involved interviewing musicians and reviewing albums, which prompted me to listen to music while writing. This was both a blessing and a curse. Nowadays, my brain naturally wants to focus on the songs over what I am jotting down.

For that very reason, I have mostly been writing in silence since I left my music journo career.

However, a year ago, I discovered Coffivity. Available as a website and an app, Coffitivity brings the sounds from your favorite coffee shop into your living room. You can choose a selection of ambient background noises, including the oh-so-pretentious Paris Paradise and the lively Brazil Bistro, as a way to boost your creativity. I fell in love.

According to a peer-reviewed study from the University of Chicago, this type of sound works incredibly well for writers because:

“a moderate level of ambient noise is conducive to creative cognition”

In plain English, being a tiny bit distracted helps you be more creative — which is also the reason why some ‘AHA’ moments happen when we’re brushing our teeth, taking a shower, or mowing the lawn. Same way, in the coffee shop, the chatter and clatter actually distract us a tiny bit and allows our creative juices to start flowing. It sounds crazy, but it works.

Seeing the positive effects of using Coffivity encouraged me to go one step further and reintroduce music into my focused routine and use it as a brand new experiment to undertake.

Pro tip: if you are just starting out writing from home or still looking to find your zone of genius, I recommend getting started with Coffitivity to help you focus when working.

From sounds to music

First, I had to find the right type of music — this happened thanks to the folks at Headspace, the meditation app — and their new focus content.

Focus was born in response to our recent WFH lives:

“Increased stress and anxiety in our day-to-day lives have impaired our ability to focus. It’s challenging to concentrate on work, family, or a simple task when our reality is in such a period of flux and uncertainty”
— Sam Rogoway, Content Officer at Headspace.

The focus section includes activities and meditations to help focus. Oh, and music. A selection of playlists has been added to the app, including one curated by John Legend and a classical cinematic playlist from Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer.

I started listening to the playlists in the morning and soon realized that the right music could genuinely help you with that day-to-day focus: but why does it work so well?

Science comes to the rescue.

As humans, we 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.

While our conscious attention is focused on the task at hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses.

Music is a useful tool as it provides non-invasive noise and pleasurable feelings, which neutralizes the unconscious attention system’s ability to distract us.

Pro tip: looking to get started with music? Go classical. Researchers have long claimed that listening to classical music can help people perform tasks more efficiently. This theory, known as “the Mozart Effect,” suggests that listening to classical composers can enhance brain activity and act as a catalyst for improving health and wellbeing.

As I started tuning in the 90 to 180-minute playlists daily for my highly focused morning routine, I realized the background music helped me find my flow more efficiently. I was intrigued. Yet, not all types of music have been created equal.

What kind of music works best?

Let’s say you want to create your own focus playlist, and you are not too keen on jazz — what should you be looking for?

Experiments by Maria Witek reveal that there needs to be a medium level of syncopation in music to elicit a pleasure response and associated body movement in individuals.

Music needs to be funky, but not too funky, for people to like it enough to make them want to dance or move along (imagine a very subtle Dad dance).

As well as upbeat sounds, cinematic music scores can be empowering, lifting your spirits and brightening your mood. So, if you’re feeling tired and drained, try listening to some epic-style cinematic music to give you that extra boost of motivation. They have the added bonus of not having any words, which can be easily distracting.

Pro tip: post-rock is a genre that became incredibly popular in the Noughties and has a cinematic effect with a more upbeat feel to it. Check out bands like maybeshewill or Mogwai.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have discovered that natural sounds boost moods and focus. The study found employees were more productive and had more positive feelings when nature sounds were playing in the background while they worked.

Last but not least, you can head back to science and look at your brain. Dr. Emma Gray, a cognitive-behavioral therapist, worked with Spotify to research the benefits of certain types of music. She found that listening to music set in the 50- to 80-beat range puts the brain into an alpha state.

As an example, you can look into binaural beats.

Binaural beats are a form of “auditory beat stimulation,” which includes both monaural and binaural beats. Broadly speaking, binaural beats seem to have modest to substantial effects on sleep, memory, attention, mood, and pain — an example here.

Pro tip: not sure where to start? Here’s a playlist of songs in that range, including some popular songs.

Takeaways

Over the past 3 months, I switched between Headspace curated playlists and my own writing playlists, featuring some songs I love (most of them without lyrics).

I used writing as my activity to test my focus, attention ad distraction levels. Overall, I found it easier for me to stay focused on the writing task with music on. I was less inclined to jump between tabs or get lost in my thoughts, fixating my attention on the task at hand.

I also found myself naturally going back to specific activities (such as writing) when choosing a specific playlist, showing the simple yet effective power of repetitions and associations.

Looking to start hacking your brain with music? A few things for you to keep in mind:

  • If you are just getting started, I recommend using apps like Coffitivity to ease you into background noises.
  • Look for classical, nature-based, or cinematic playlists as you are easing yourself into more complex playlists.
  • When creating your own playlists, look for songs with little to no lyrics and not too upbeat.

I love being able to listen to music that can keep me productive, focused, and concentrated on the task at hand. I would recommend you give focus playlists a go and let me know how that works for you.

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