Can Music Really Help You Focus?

Unwanted noise can be a distraction, but with the right playlist you can really supercharge your workplace productivity. Here’s how.

man studying

Whether you’re running errands or working towards a deadline at work, a top-tier selection of tunes can help you get in the zone. 

But, is music just a placebo, or does it have a genuine effect on productivity? And if so, how does it actually work?

When it comes to decoding the science of music, Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the link between music and exercise, is the man to speak to. Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Brunel University London, Karageorghis posts regular updates on his group’s research on Twitter. Here’s what he has to say.

How does music help you concentrate?

First things first – can music help us focus? “Music is an easily accessible tool in creating an optimal level of activation (how pepped-up you feel) for any given task,” he says. In other words, music gets you pumped. But there’s more to it than that…

Researchers at Harvard University think music can benefit learning and the way we work since it activates a number of regions and networks in the brain. Another recent study found regular music listeners felt less anxiety and rated their abilities to learn new tasks and information more highly – all of which is extremely helpful when it comes to hitting that deadline.

There’s also the most obvious benefit of drowning out distractions. “Music can create a ‘listening bubble’ which blocks out any unwanted external distractions,” Karageorghis explains. These distractions can also be internal, in the form of rumination or negative self-talk, Karageorghis adds.

In other words, music can drown out not just your annoying co-workers, but the doubtful parts of your mind too, helping us complete the task at hand to the highest degree we’re capable of. Ideal for that tricky presentation, then.

“Some types of tasks – such as those requiring high levels of information processing – require low-to-moderate levels of activation for attentional processing to be optimised,” explains Karageorghis. In a recent study conducted by his team, Karageorghis found that low-intensity music of around 60 decibels focused young drivers’ driving abilities in an urban setting.

man listening to music

Again, this makes sense. By jacking your heart rate, Metallica might lead to road rage. That chilled beats playlist on the other hand might make you calmer, less reactive, and a more considered driver.

Music isn’t just beneficial at extremes, however. Sometimes your favourite music is all you need. “We found that often music can feed positive affirmations, giving track and field athletes, in particular, a sense that they are the master of their own destiny,” Karageorghis explains.

What types of music are best for concentration? 

While all music is beneficial, it makes sense that lower-tempo music can help us slow down and focus, while up-tempo music can get our hearts beating and the endorphins pumping, helping us feel good about the task to come. We know that music can manipulate our emotions in subtle ways, too. Think of the musical cues in the last film you watched and how they made you feel, or how reality TV shows pour on the strings when a contestant is recounting a sob story. 

Karageorghis knows all about this. He recently worked on a series of music-related exhibits for the Manchester Science and Industry Museum, one of which allowed visitors to hear the favourite music of different sports people when they opened their lockers. For Andy Murray, Black Eyed Peas or Ed Sheeran got him in the zone. 

In an office environment, you’ll likely require something low-key, especially if you need to focus for a prolonged time. In terms of background noise, research suggests that by providing an ambient background soundscape, white noise – which combines frequencies to create a static-like sound – can help you focus on work.

Pink noise is also background noise, but more of a low hum. It drowns out distractions and is considered more soothing, although perhaps more suited to sleep than the office. Brown noise is an even deeper, bass-heavy rumbling, with preliminary research suggesting it can help thinking.

Nature sounds like birdsong or waves lapping against the shore are found to reduce anxiety and promote positive memories, leading to greater mental well-being and cognitive performance among university students. Meanwhile, researchers have commented on video game music providing just the right ambience for work. (Although, the Resident Evil soundtrack might not have the same effect…)

The 'Focus with Huel' playlist

You've done the reading, now it's time to get to work. Give our specially curated playlist a go and get into 'focus mode'.

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