Perhaps you have listened to music while working. Maybe when you were a teenager you turned the music up almost unbearably loud and tried to do your algebra homework while the music played, only minimizing the volume when your parents insisted on it. Now you may put on headphones and turn up the tunes to drown out the chatter of coworkers and help you focus on that project you really need to get done.
There have been several companies that have created music that is specifically designed to improve focus and concentration in the past few years. According to studies, listening to their music can give you laser focus and boost the level of your productivity. They even claim it can increase your focus by 400 percent. In addition, Spotify, Apple Music, and other services offer playlists intended to improve concentration, such as “focus” playlists.
Are these services actually useful? Are they backed by legitimate science? How does focus music work exactly?
It’s no secret that noise while working is distracting: the constant cough of a coworker construction outside—even the sound of drip of a leaky faucet can cause difficulty to concentrate when something keeps butting in.
The issue at hand is executive attention. Every moment of every day, you are being bombarded by a variety of stimuli, like noises, tastes, temperature changes, movement, and thousands of other things flash across your brain trying to grab your focus.
Executive attention is what allows you to maintain your sanity. It is the process by which your brain determines what things will have your attention and which will fade into the background. It’s like a teacher in a classroom. Not everyone can talk at once. Each person has to wait for their turn.
When you encounter various stimuli, the part of your brain called the locus coeruleus sends noradrenaline to different parts of your brain, which then determines which stimuli grab your attention.
Without any executive attention, you would probably go insane, unable to separate out various stimuli, constantly pulled between this and that, unable to concentrate on anything. Focus would be completely impossible.
Researchers think that problems such as ADHD, stress disorders, and emotional affective disorders may be the result of a malfunctioning locus coeruleus.
Your executive attention is what allows you to focus. It keeps certain stimuli at bay so you are able to give all your attention to the thing in front of you.
When you are constantly bombarded by a variety of distractions, your executive attention has to fight relentlessly to keep you on track, and this results in attention fatigue, which in turn leads to distraction and a lack of focus.
So, at the most basic level, focus music blocks out distracting stimuli with one, relatively simple stimuli (simple music).
If you are listening to music with lots of variety or that goes from soft to loud, you’ll probably end up being distracted. Although you may love the new Adele or U2 album, it’s probably not the best for focus. The best music for concentration is relatively calm and straightforward, without abrupt volume changes or annoying high or low pitches.
That Thing Called Habituation
Some people feel like they work better in a mildly noisy coffee shop than in a completely quiet library. Why is this? It has to do with something called “habituation”
When your senses are suddenly bombarded with stimuli (like at a coffee shop), you’ll probably initially feel distracted. But after 10 to 20 minutes, the noise begins to fade to the background and you are able to focus.
Your brain is habituated to the noise and you are able to give your attention to what’s in front of you.
Habituation works for a while, but after some time you’ll probably find yourself growing restless. This is because your brain is getting bored and starts to look for other, more exciting stimuli. Your focus will start to wane. Pretty soon, you find yourself on Buzzfeed taking another one of those dumb personality quizzes.
So the trick is occupying your brain just enough to let you work, but feeding your brain novel stimuli at just the right times so that you don’t try to seek novelty by distracting yourself. It turns out listening to music while you work can do the trick.
The Power of ‘Entrainment’
There is one more bit of science behind focus music: entrainment. It is believed that brainwaves can be synchronized to external sound waves, such as music. In other words, as the brain is exposed to repeated sound waves over a period of time, the brain waves will become synchronized with the sound waves.
If brainwaves and sound waves can be synchronized, it follows that listening to certain types of music can lead to certain brain states (sleep, relaxed, focused, etc.), because each brain state has a particular brainwave pattern.
A low-frequency oscillator generates amplitude modulations in the low-frequency range (<20 Hz). For example, beta modulations (12-18 Hz) are used to stimulate attentional focus, as beta-band activity is related to the maintenance of the current cognitive state. Thus, entrainment of beta oscillations helps listeners keep their attentional focus for a longer time period.
Basically, the music follows a particular pattern that mimics the brain waves present in a focused state. After listening for some time, the brain waves become entrained to the music, helping you get focused.
Music, Creativity, and Emotion
There is also some evidence that music can stimulate creativity. As one study notes:
A high level of noise may cause a great deal of distraction, causing individuals to process information to a lesser extent and therefore to exhibit lower creativity. A moderate (vs. low) level of noise, however, is expected to distract people without significantly affecting the extent of processing. Further, we reason that such a moderate distraction, which induces processing difficulty, enhances creativity by prompting abstract thinking.
In other words, low levels of noise (think music or coffee shop), can lead to abstract, or “sideways” thinking. This kind of thinking often leads to creative solutions that otherwise wouldn’t have been found.
Additionally, a study in France found that students who studied classical music in the background scored significantly higher than those who studied in silence. The researchers believe that the music put the students in an aroused emotional state, which led to more effective processing of information.
Before you become a focus music evangelist, you should know that the science behind it is still in the early stages.
However, just because it’s in its early stages doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try focus music. Some people find it incredibly helpful, even if it’s just to block out the sound of distracting noises. Others say it helps them get into a flow state, where they are only aware of the task immediately at hand.
Whether you need it or not, it’s here when you need it.