Tuning your focus with music

The other morning, while I casually sipped on my coffee, prepping for the day ahead, I let my Spotify playlist set the vibe in the background. As my taste in music changes rapidly from situation to situation, my playlists are infected with all sorts of genres and compositions, keeping me on my toes about the next track.  Sitting on my armchair with rays of light coming through the only living room window in my student apartment, a familiar song cut through my thoughts:  It was “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

Suddenly, I’m not in my cramped apartment anymore. I am transported to the day my mom bought me my first guitar. I remember how excited I was, how much it cost, and the music shop we bought it in. Being a kid, I had no idea whether the guitar was good, bad, cheap, expensive… I had no reference! I just knew I couldn’t wait to get home and start jamming. My opening act? You guessed it, “Let It Be” by the Beatles (an easy four-chord wonder, like many pop songs, I’d later realize). I remember my excitement after hours of grinding the guitar, that I was able to form a few chords, and the right sound came out (kind of right…it was my first day!).

Why am I telling you this story? Because I’m betting, you’ve had your moment – a song or a riff sparking something inside you, and a doormat memory, a blurry recollection, became crystal clear- so vivid, you can practically feel and smell it. This shows you the power that music has on us, the power that sound has upon our physiology and psychology.

In this article, I would like to touch upon this power of music, but in a practical way –  by finding out what music serves us best when it comes to working and studying. What sounds foster our focus and productivity, and what distracts us? This is not a new question in the world of science. However, recently, it has gained attention for its potential to enhance cognitive power and focus. Having experimented with various musical modalities over the years, I’m here to sift through the noise and present you with the newest scientific aids. It’s time to equip yourself with tools that will instantly elevate your focus and drown out distractions. So, listen up!

How does music alter our brains and bodies?

As mentioned earlier, music is a very powerful tool. Whether it’s elevating our spirits, motivating us to work out, or even aiding us in the grieving process of tough life experiences, music uniquely connects with us in ways language often falls short.  It is even proposed that music, meaning singing, dancing, and different types of vocalizations, predates language. They might have been the origins of our communication. 

Music can touch us in a way language cannot because of the way it engages our bodies. As the sound comes in through our ears, it is transformed into electrical and chemical signals. Our neurons fire up one by one… To the beat of the music! Yes, our bodies set off a symphony of neuronal activity in sync with the music, from the release of catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine) to the engagement of the neural circuits connected to movement (nodding, tapping, moving your hips, etc..). Simply put, music involves us on a level where we actively contribute from within, utilizing our bodies and minds.

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This video describes an interesting study. Scientists were able to reconstruct a Pink Floyd song using just brain activity! Talking about producing music with our bodies…

When it comes to the effects that music has on the brain, the list stretches forever. It influences everything, from regions tasked with predictions like the frontal cortex to areas devoted to novelty, pleasure, and the release of dopamine. It also activates emotional centers and arousal, motivational systems, as well as structures devoted to memory. This explains how your emotions, recollections, and memories can all come together to the sound of the melody. Picture this: A simple combination of notes enters your ears and lights up all these brain pathways at once, causing a cascade of effects in your body! Amazing!

Music is more than entertainment – it is a gateway to a different state of mind. So, how do we use it to our advantage?

Music for focus

Now we come to the pivotal question: Which music or sounds can amplify productivity and enhance your focus during work or study sessions?

40 Hz Binaural Beats

Binaural beats are the kind of ambient music you would typically hear in a Yoga or meditation video. Binaural beats involve presenting two slightly different frequencies to each ear, creating a perceived third frequency in the brain. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in this field, with numerous research highlighting focus and working memory improvements. One of these studies even coined binaural beats as “non-invasive brain stimulation for enhancing training and learning.”

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The beauty of binaural beats lies in their accessibility – they’re free! Whether on YouTube, Spotify, or apps like Brainwave, 40 Hz binaural beats are readily available. Personally, I listen to binaural 40Hz beats on Spotify, usually in work bouts of 90-120 minutes. But if you prefer working in silence, incorporating these beats during your breaks has also proven effective in boosting focus and concentration. It’s a simple, cost-free tool to fine-tune your cognitive performance.

White and Brown Noise

White noise is the kind of noise your old TV makes when it’s not working. In nature, a prime equivalent of white noise is the soothing sound of a waterfall.

White noise is characterized by a consistent sound across all frequencies. Its magic lies in its ability to mask background distractions, creating a steady auditory environment. Picture it as a noise that’s stimulating enough to engage the brain without being overwhelming.

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White noise can be a bit harsh or aggressive for some, which is why there are other variations of it, such as brown noise.

Brown noise resembles the rhythmic sound of the ocean. It strategically elevates the volume of low frequencies while dialing down the intensity of high frequencies, resulting in a gentler and more calming effect.

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There’s also the middle ground pink noise. It carries a softer quality, akin to the sound of rainfall, making it less potent than white noise. Think of it as a sanded-down version of white noise with slightly amplified lower frequencies.

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For our purposes, these variations  – white, brown, pink (and others) – all fall under the umbrella of white noise variations.

Current research points to the fact that white noise variations and 40hz binaural beats are superior to silence when it comes to cognitive work. Particularly beneficial for individuals prone to distraction, these auditory aids serve as effective tools to blend out background noises and create an environment conducive to focused work or study. People also use it in-between bouts and to “war-up” for heavy cognitive work.

Instrumental music

If binaural beats and white noise have proven to lead to better focus than silence, research depicts a different picture for music. Studies comparing working in silence with purely instrumental music, music with lyrics, or one’s favorite music (with or without lyrics) showed surprising data. It showed that people mostly perform best on cognitive tasks in complete silence. The second-best condition, however, is instrumental music. This aligns with the widespread preference for genres like jazz or lo-fi during focused work.

What truly caught my attention were the findings on music with lyrics, including one’s favorite songs, regardless of lyrical content. Listening to songs with lyrics or your favorite tunes hinders comprehension and cognitive processing. It might thus be better to work in silence or to the sounds of soft instrumental music.

Side note: As far as I can judge, there haven’t been any studies comparing music (instrumental or with lyrics) with binaural beats or white noise variations. Thus, until further research emerges, their comparative efficiency remains an open question. I guess you must try it out to find out!

Where should you begin?

When it comes to optimizing your work environment, it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference. If you find that silence works best for you, stick with it. However, if you’re easily distracted by what’s happening around you or your thoughts, it’s worth giving these tools a shot. Experimenting with each method on different occasions can help you discover what enhances your focus and productivity.

If you enjoy listening to favorite songs or music with lyrics, there’s no need to fret. But it might be judicious to incorporate them before or after your work session, especially if they’re more upbeat. Research indicates that high-tempo music (140-160 BPM) can boost motivation and energy levels.

In conclusion, the key is to find your own way. I’ve introduced you to scientifically proven tools for enhancing focus through sound – they’re free and readily available online. It’s up to you to explore, experiment with timing, and build your personalized work style. After all, your ideal working soundtrack is a unique and individual choice.

Closing

Music has been with us for a long time, perhaps longer than language. It’s not just a handy tool; it’s a cognitive enhancer, a source of joy, and an integral part of our lives. While this article has focused on its application to work and concentration, it’s important to acknowledge that music extends its benefits to health, motivation, physical exercise, and more. Don’t overlook this remarkable tool – a free, scientifically proven way to enrich your life and the lives of those around you. And hey, if you already found a modality that works for you, then, as the song goes: Let it be!

If you are interested in more free physical tools to increase your focus and attention, check out our articles on cold exposure, breathing, and light, as well as other resources on the blog.

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