Should you listen to music to focus better?
It’s time to quit faffing around and actually get some work done — work that doesn’t include scanning your Facebook feed again — but you can’t concentrate. Your focus is… wait, what’s focus? Ooh, a new email notification, let’s see who it’s from. J Crew again. I wish they’d send sale coupons for things I actually want to get. What were we talking about? Focus, silly.
Give me yours for just a few minutes and I’ll help you tackle one aspect of distraction: sound. Here’s what you should listen to (scientifically) if you want to improve your concentration. And you do. You can’t be an entrepreneur if you aren’t actually creating something.
Sound or Silence? Which to listen to for better focus
There are two camps in this debate (aren’t there always?), and we’re going to start with silence.
We’ve all heard that listening to Mozart improves concentration, intelligence, creativity, IQ, and sex appeal, but it’s not necessarily true.
It turns out, noise disrupts concentration. Big whoop, right? But you may not have realized that this includes all forms and volumes of sound, even music. Even Mozart.
In 1981, the EPA found that there was growing evidence to suggest a link between noise exposure and cardiovascular problems, plus peptic ulcers and migraine headaches. Don’t freak out just yet; they did mention loud sounds specifically. (How loud are you listening to music while you work?)
They even went so far as to create this disturbing figure of what our bodies might do in response to noise:
All that, just for some background music? I wasn’t so sure at first, but then I started thinking about how tense I get at concerts and agreed that there was a link.
But how about lower, quieter sounds?
The research isn’t so clear there.
A 2001 study found the level of distress noise causes a person seems to be correlated with how complex the job is that they’re working on (Melamed, Fried, & Froom, 2001). The more complex your task — such as writing a blog post, developing a product, or learning something new — the more stress and anxiety you’ll experience from background noise.
Mark A. W. Andrews, director and professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, says in the January 2010 Scientific American: “Several studies have indicated that stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol,” but I don’t know which studies he’s referring to because he didn’t cite them. Dr. Andrews, if you’d like to share those, I’d like to read them!
Cortisol, as we all know from Dr. Oz, yoga classes, and Pinterest, is a contributor to a great number of devious things, including weight gain, cardiovascular diseases, and anxiety. It’s one of those hormones that we find ourselves wondering ‘Why is this even still a thing? We don’t get chased by lions much anymore, but we do have to fit into high-waisted jeans.’ Or maybe that’s just me?
Fortunately, cortisol has other uses, but too much of it’s a bad thing. And that’s what we get when we’re chronically stressed.
Could turning off your Pandora playlist help reduce your stress levels?
It might be worth a try because excess cortisol, per Dr. Andrews, “impairs function in the prefrontal cortex—an emotional learning center that helps to regulate “executive” functions such as planning, reasoning, and impulse control” and that “stress resulting from background noise, then, may decrease higher brain function, impairing learning and memory.”
How silence could help you focus
- lower cortisol levels
- lower stress response and anxiety
- improved ability to learn
- improved memory
- improved reading comprehension
- better ability to complete complex tasks
What to try
- Turn off your music
- Work somewhere without forced air, traffic, or other ambient noises
- Send the kids to Grandma's
- Shut the door
- Designate a "do not disturb me" time
There are other studies that suggest cognitive function and sound are correlated to our personality type. Introverts may have a harder time focusing with sound around them than extroverts do (Furnham & Strbac, 2010).
The type of sound may also be a factor. There was a difference in annoyance levels between high and low-frequency sounds, and if the sound annoys you, then, of course, your cognitive ability declines. "Perception of spectral imbalance, such as rumble, roar, and hiss, were also shown to impact," (Errett, Bowden, Choiniere, & Wang, 2006).
While some studies find that familiarity with a sound helps it to blend into the background so that you stop noticing it, that's not always the case. Annoying sounds are always going to be annoying sounds: "Despite the fact that exposure time was not shown to significantly impact performance, there was an indication that perception of the background noise did impact performance," (Errett et al).
We're left with 4 factors that affect our ability to work well in the presence of sound:
- personality type (introverted vs. extroverted)
- type of sound (high vs. low frequency)
- perception of sound (annoying or pleasing)
- familiarity (new sound vs. familiar sound)
You may find that you work well with sound — it's familiar to you, you have tinnitus, your background is already annoyingly noisy and you need to cover it with something pleasing, and so on.
But you may be surprised to find that the type of sound you currently use for your work isn't the best choice. Below, I've got 4 different types of sound you can try to find your optimal mental clarity + productivity zone.
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. It's often described as a tingly feeling some people get on the scalp, and down the spine and limbs, when certain triggers are present — having your hair brushed, having makeup put on you, soft talking or whispering, tapping, rustling paper, and many others. While not everyone experiences the tingly sensation, most people do report that certain sounds will still contribute to relaxation.
How ASMR can help you focus
- lower stress and anxiety levels
- lower cortisol levels
- feelings of relaxation
- clearing the mind
I am one of the lucky people who experiences ASMR (love getting my hair cut!) and I often use ASMR videos as background noise when I'm browsing the internet or doing other mindless tasks after a long day.
I used to also use them as background noise when I was working but have started trying new things (never hurts to experiment!). I've therefore got a great list of options for newbies to the community. Check out the playlists I made for you below.
- Tapping, scratching, rustling, etc (no talking)
- Soft-spoken foreign languages
- Male voices (separate because female ASMRtists are most common)
- Role plays (hair-brushing, make up, etc.)
2. White noise / certain sound frequencies
I don't actually just mean white noise. Noise has colors based on the power spectrum of each type of noise. It's similar to timbre. Each of these colors of noise has the potential to affect you differently. White noise is the one we hear about the most, but when people say it, they're probably talking about all the different colors of noise.
I personally find true white noise horrid, but pink noise and red noise are more acceptable to me. It's important for you to understand which type of noise you tolerate best if you're considering using it as a background sound.
Another cool thing happens when people are presented with certain sound frequencies. EEGs have measured brainwaves synchronizing to outside stimuli — like sound beats. It's called neural (or brain) entrainment (source). Not everyone experiences it or experiences it to the same degree, but the potential is interesting enough to experiment with because certain frequencies in brainwaves are associated with different cognitive functions — like learning and memory (source).
The Solfeggio Scale is often brought up when talking about the potential sounds have on the human body. It's a set of usually 6 sound frequencies that are believed by some to attune the body's energy to a higher, more divine level. These tones were used in some medieval sacred music and Gregorian Chanting. We no longer use this music scale for modern music.
These last two might seem a little woo-woo to you, but I say give them a try before you write them off. I've tried both and found them to be oddly focusing in a way that normal instrumental music was not for me.
How white noises can help you focus
- Mask more annoying noises
- Blend a lot of background noises together
- Create a baseline background noise
- Neural entrainment*
- Attune your body's energies*
* These aren't (yet) confirmed by science. That doesn't mean that they won't happen for you, just that no scientific experiments have yet been conducted to verify or debunk them so far as I can find.
- The Ultimate White Noise Machine lets you adjust the levels of all the colors to find the configuration that works for you.
- Playnoise also offers sound color noises, but I like it for the 'very slow binaural beats' — binaural means that different sounds come from each side of your headphones
- Gamma & Theta sounds playlist (includes some Solfeggio Scale pieces)
3. Meditation / downtempo music
Sometimes you just want a little music. Most studies agree that if you're going to have music, instrumental music is better than music with vocals because vocals put your brain into communication mode (source). It hears words and automatically wants to listen and decipher them.
Foreign music can work similarly because you can't understand the words, so your brain doesn't interpret it as communication as much as it does songs in your own language.
There is no consensus on whether fast or slow songs are more effective for concentration (source), but since sounds that stimulate your brain do affect your ability to perform complex tasks, then you should probably avoid getting excited by whatever you listen to. For that reason, downtempo and zen/meditation music might be a good choice for you.
How music can help you focus
- Familiar sounds are easy for the brain to ignore
- Pleasant sounds are easier to tolerate than annoying sounds
- Certain beats and frequencies may contribute to neural entrainment
- 8Tracks Downtempo Radio
- Internet Radio Downtempo stations
- Focus@Will: This is a paid service, but they have a free 2 week trial
- Your own playlist that you're already very familiar with — the goal is not to 'interest' your brain with new sounds
4. Thunder, rain, & other ambient sounds
Ambient sounds are background environment sounds — think the wind, waves, rain, ceiling fans, talking in restaurants, and so on. Because these are familiar and more or less natural sounds, they fall under that special category of sounds that our brain can ignore more easily.
And really, who doesn't like listening to a nice thunderstorm?
How ambient sounds can help you focus
- Easy for the brain to ignore
- Pleasing and relaxing
- Nature sounds might make your mind feel freer
- Just enough background noise without being distracting
- A Soft Murmur: Adjust different types of sound, including rain and thunder (my faves!)
- Harry Potter Sound Mixer: sounds of the Houses' common rooms, Hogwarts library, and more! (I just found this and I've been chilling to the Ravenclaw Common Room)
- Coffitivity: Cafe sounds if you like working in coffee shops
- Noisli: Also offers cafe sounds, plus rain, thunder, fires, and more — you can even choose the type of sounds you want, depending on if you're looking to be productive or get relaxed!
- Zen-Cast: More mix-and-match ambient sounds
What should YOU listen to?
While writing this post, I tried something new: no music or added ambient noise. I couldn’t turn off the forced air or sounds of doors opening and closing at the shop where I wrote it, but taking my earbuds out was a big change. Which worked better?
I wish I could say that my ASMR videos or “Writing” playlist on Spotify worked the best, but they didn’t. I was significantly more productive when I worked in relative silence.
Does that mean you should work only in silence, too? Not necessarily. Some folks find silence maddening. Or you might have tinnitus and never experience true silence, so a little something low in the background could help mask an annoying sound with one more easily ignored. PS - if you do have tinnitus, do you also have a tight neck and shoulders?
If you normally work with music on, give silence a try. And if you normally work with silence, try one or more of the sound options I’ve provided above. We are all wired a bit differently, and our brains react to different things based on what we’re accustomed to. Find YOUR sweet spot and hone it to a fine, concentrated point.
How do you usually work?
With sound or without? Will you try one of the other options? Do you have any suggestions to add to the recommendations lists? Let me know in comments so we can see what's most popular.