Does music really help you focus?
By Composer Alex Mills
From time to time we all need a boost to our motivation and mood to help us meet the challenges life throws at us: whether it’s preparing for a big meeting, studying for an exam, staying on top of life admin, or simply dealing with the ups and downs of daily life. But when life gets stressful it can be difficult to focus on what we need to accomplish that day, week or month.
The big changes the pandemic has caused to both our working and personal lives has increased stress and anxiety for many of us as we navigate new ways of working from home and juggling daily commitments such as work, studies and childcare in unchartered territory.
This has led many of us to try mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques to help relax and re-focus the mind. These can all be very beneficial but there is yet another tool that we all have at our fingertips to help us here: listening to music.
While we are all familiar with how powerful and emotive music can be, I wonder how many of us have actually tried using music in our daily lives to motivate us, improve our concentration, and boost our mood?
There have been a number of studies and surveys published in this area. Here are a few examples that suggest how listening to music can:
- Improve our mood: Listening to music releases dopamine in our brains, especially so when it’s music that we love. One study showed that levels of dopamine were found to be up to 9% higher when people listened to music that they enjoyed.
- Reduce anxiety and stress: Studies have shown that listening to music can reduce anxiety and stress levels as well as calm our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing allowing us to perform and concentrate better.
- Improve our cognitive abilities: When focusing on accomplishing mental tasks, music can improve performance of our cognitive abilities. One study revealed that this is particularly true when the music is upbeat.
- Improve our memory: The same study showed that listening to background music can also aid memory while completing cognitive tasks. One reason this might be the case is that being stressed can negatively impact our ability to remember things.
- Increase our motivation: Listening to music can have a positive effect on the mental fatigue we experience by performing routine tasks: like a daily work or study routine. This, combined with the mood lifting impact music can have, can lead to increased feelings of motivation.
What type of music works best?
While the studies are abundant and ever-growing, there is a huge caveat to all of this: not all music will have these affects and it’s not ‘one size fits all’. There are a number of factors at play that will determine which music might work for you. Here are some things to consider:
- Music that you enjoy: The mood-enhancing effects of music are best when you listen to music that you enjoy. However, listening to your favourite album of all time may be a little too distracting if you’re trying to focus on a work task. Find a balance by choosing music that is pleasurable and suits your tastes, rather than choosing your go-to karaoke tune which might get you singing along.
- Instrumental vs. lyrics: Generally speaking, most people seem to find music with no singing more effective for boosting their concentration. This is because words and language can be distracting to the brain when you’re trying to focus on a task – just like people chattering around you while you’re trying to work.
- Background vs. foreground: Most of the studies in this area refer to ‘background music’ being most helpful. With this in mind, keep the volume at a level that blocks out any distracting noises without becoming a new distraction of its own. Experiment with different volumes to find a sweet spot.
- Upbeat – but not too upbeat: If you’re listening to music to motivate you in a work-out, then by all means go high tempo and fast. But if you’re studying or working at your computer, choose music that you find gently rousing and uplifting, but not over-stimulating and distracting.
- Rhythmic pulsing: Many people say that music with a strong sense of rhythm or pulse works well for improving their concentration. This can be anything from baroque music, classical music, minimalist music, dance music, or even some ambient music. Certain studies suggest pulsing rhythms at a moderate tempo work because they relate to our heart and breathing rates, while others suggest that the regularity of pulsing rhythms support sustained concentration.
How does it all work?
Studies into exactly how music can help us focus and concentrate is ongoing. However, one significant theory discussed in this fascinating article suggests:
“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 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.”
This explains that however much we try to focus on a task, we can easily be distracted when our unconscious attention picks up on stimulus around us and brings it to our conscious attention. However, listening to background music can keep the unconscious attention focused on something fixed and constant, freeing up our conscious minds to concentrate with less distraction. This is why instrumental, rhythmic, gently uplifting background music can often work the best.
What types of music should I try?
While the tips mentioned so far seem to be what works best for most people, feel free to explore and decide which music might work best to improve your focus and concentration. Here are some of the most common types of music people use to help aid their concentration:
Instrumental classical music is a tried and tested option but the choice can be overwhelming. A journalist friend of mine swears by J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to help her concentrate when she is writing. Handel’s Water Music is another favourite, as is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (and even the contemporary ‘remix’ of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter). Others prefer piano classics such as Beethoven’s Fur Elise or Mozart’s Piano Sonatas. There are many playlists to explore, including this relaxing one which includes both classical music and ambient electronic tracks.
A personal favourite of mine, the repetitive rhythms and pulsing textures of so-called minimalist music by composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich can provide the perfect background soundtrack when focusing on tasks demanding high concentration. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is my go-to, as well as the hypnotic Music in 12 Parts by Philip Glass.
Electronic Dance music (EDM)
If classical sounds are not your thing, then EDM is another option and has been proven to work. In one study, EDM resulted in the highest overall accuracy and fastest performance across a range of tasks like spell-checking and solving equations. But the usual rules apply: choose instrumental tracks played at a non-distracting volume. There are also EDM tracks that are more ‘chilled’ than frantic, which might be more suitable. Spotify has some great playlist options, such as this one which draws on Deep House music as well as this EDM Instrumentals playlist.
If rhythmic music doesn’t work for you, then ambient music - which often lacks rhythms and beats, might be worth trying. It works for many people because it blurs the line between music and background noise, combining musical tones and melodies with sounds like drones, gentle hums, whirring sounds and static that you might hear in day-to-day life. The genre is huge with so much variety, but it’s easy to explore on music streaming services. Ambient Soundscapes have a wide variety of different playlists on Spotify to explore.
Video Game Music
Perhaps a surprising choice, but it’s worth remembering that the soundtracks to video games have been explicitly composed to engage gamers and aid concentration without distracting them. This can make it a perfect choice of music to help you concentrate on working or studying, especially as it often merges classical, ambient and electronic dance music genres together. There is a huge amount out there to choose from, but this playlist is a good starting point to help determine what might work for you.
How do I know if it’s working?
You should be able to tell quite quickly if a certain type of music works for you or not. If you find that the music repeatedly interrupts your chain of thought while focusing on the task at hand, it’s probably not right for you. If you find that you can get stuck into your work or studies and almost forget that the music is there at all, it’s probably working well.
Some Final Tips:
- Stick to playlists that you discover or create yourself, rather than listening to radio stations that can distract.
- Put playlists – especially ones you use regularly – on shuffle as randomness of song choices has been shown to increase dopamine levels.
- If music is just too distracting, try sounds instead: nature sounds, white noise or even pink noise have all been shown to have similar effects to music.
- Most importantly of all – experiment with what music or sounds works best for you and your individual needs. Give yourself the freedom to explore different genres and find the best fit for you, and enjoy the journey.
Alex Mills is a music composer and has been collaborating with Bach Flower Remedies over the past year to create a musical interpretation of each remedy.