What music is and where it came from has proven to be quiet an enigma. Some experts estimate that it has been around in one form or another for over 50,000 years. But where did it come from, and why did humans start stringing sounds together in patterns?
Is it simply another invention of the human race—like the wheel and airplanes. Some recent studies are indicating that it might be a more innate part of our evolutionary journey, perhaps even hardwired into creating and enjoy music.
It seems reasonable that if our neural circuitry is designed to react to and enjoy music, it ought to have a noticeable impact on our mood and behavior, and thus, productivity.
When researchers studied the brains of chimps listening to music, it was discovered that certain neural pathways lit up over others, indicating that they, like us, evolved to hear and respond to what we refer to today as “Music”.
So if we’re hardwired to like music, this made me ask what kind of impact does it have at a psychological level? How can it impact our mood, performance, and productivity?
Well, let’s find out.
Music & Performance Enhancement
In the late 1990’s, Major League Baseball was embroiled in a scandal over the use of Performance Enhancing drugs, commonly called “PEDs” or “steroids.”
The watching public was outraged that some of their favorite players might have used banned substances to gain a competitive advantage. The practice was in no way new, as athletes have always sought the minutest practice to gain a competitive advantage.
Top athletes have long used caffeine for instance to boost performance. While athletic governance boards continue to work to define PEDs and acceptable levels, one sports performance researcher is wondering if music, all things, could be considered to be a type of “legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Dr. Costas Karageorghis is a sports psychologist who is also one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of music and performance. In one of his studies, he discovered that music was capable of increasing the performance of a runner by as much as 20%, while simultaneously reducing the runner’s perception of their effort by about 10%.
By measuring V02 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense exercise, his team came to the conclusion that music could help a person run farther and at a higher pace than those who didn’t listen to anything at all.
On a personal level, every time I listen to the following song from the Tron series I get goosebumps. The times I’ve played this during a section of my run resulted in an incredible feeling and my fastest runs.
It makes sense that music can boost performance in exercise, but how and why does it do this?
It is well known scientifically that every desire we have, whether to eat, sleep or reproduce is motivated by our brain’s reward chemical – dopamine.
In a relatively recent study, researchers noted this same chemical was released when participants anticipated periods of high emotional arousal from the music they were listening to.² In layman’s terms, it means that music can indeed make us feel good and other research has come to the same conclusion, that music can make us more productive by indirectly affecting our mood.
However, scientists working with Dr. Costas believe that when it comes to physical performance, music actually acts as a distraction from any pain of physical exhaustion that your body might be feeling.
Depending on the context, it’s likely that music can serve both as a reward and a distraction, perhaps even simultaneously.
Beyond performance, let’s look at how music can affect our brain’s ability to enter different modes and mindsets.
How Music Affects Us
Dr. Karageorghis’ study also concluded that, unlike a doctor’s prescription for an illness, there was no “Vitamin Model“ of music, meaning that everybody is influenced by music in their own way, and its effects have much to do with the situational context, experiences, and preferences of the listener.
This discovery makes sense, as the music itself is as varied as the people listening and the contexts they are listening in. Listening to a clarinet sonata surely wouldn’t have the same effect as the latest DJ from Sweden (RIP Avicii). Several aspects of music, it turns out, are especially important to consider if you want to use music to enhance performance.
Tempo: Motivation & Creativity
Other studies have measured the effect of tempo on performance during exercise, with most finding that the preferred tempo is between 125 and 140 beats per minute (bpm). The optimum tempo varies based on the type of exercise and one’s ability to keep in synch with the music.
There is some indication that music tempo can improve mental acuity and creativity as well. In one study, Canadian undergraduates did a better job on an IQ test after listening to a more upbeat classical piece by Mozart than after listening to a slower piece by Albinoni. Children in Japan were shown to spend a longer amount of time creating drawings and were even more creative after listening to more familiar children’s songs over an unfamiliar classical piece.
Lyrics: Productivity & Concentration
Listening to music has excellent benefits when performing repetitive tasks. Most humans have a difficult time performing repetitive tasks for long periods, as attention fades over time. In one study, upbeat music was found to improve efficiency and overall accuracy of workers on an assembly line, a job whose repetition proves a challenge for workers. In such a case, music effectively makes the task less boring and increases alertness.
Our brain is constantly scanning everything coming in through the senses and attempting to predict what will happen next in any given situation. When we already know what is going to happen next (ie: repetitive task), music can provide us with enough of a distraction to keep focused on the repetitive task.
The exception is when we’re listening to lyrical songs, especially ones we haven’t heard before. We’re wired to pick up language and conversation from our fellow humans, and lyrics unintentionally swap our focus back and forth between whatever work we’re doing and the song itself.
The best way to use motivational types of music (aka: with lyrics) for creative or cognitive tasks is to use the music before the task or during breaks. Any kind of popular music is bound to impact work in a negative way, so consider using it more as a reward instead.
Some research has found that in cases where you have to process work with a lot of mental cognition, listening to motivational music can have a therapeutic effect if used before starting the task or in-between breaks. Combining these studies suggests that upbeat, motivational music with lyrics could be an excellent tool on breaks between work cycles to provide motivation and relaxation, fueling the next cycle of work.
Repetition: The Key Factor
While lyrics may be harmful to concentration, there is perhaps an exception to this. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress (now a billion-dollar company), was interviewed on the “Tim Ferris Podcast” and talked about his method for focus. He stated that some of his best work was performed just by listening to a single song or a small playlist of songs on repeat.
This seems to be the one exception to the listening to music with lyrics, as after enough times the brain maps it out as ambient noise, much in the same way we stop perceiving a scent after a period of time.
This is known as the Mere-exposure effect and is discussed in the book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. This effect states that the more we’re exposed to something, the more we tend to like it, and that repetition of anything makes us like it more and more. Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next—a sense of shared subjectivity with the music arises. This effect can be so strong that in descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, many people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.
Types of Music for Increased Focus
Besides repetition, there is a whole slew of musical and sound options that you can use to enhance your creativity and focus. Let’s cover some of those options below.
Video Game Soundtracks
Best for: Long focus sessions with light-to-moderate attention levels
When it comes to music that might help you study or focus better, video games probably weren’t the first thing that came to mind. Video game soundtracks are designed to perpetuate long hours of continuous focus without distraction, making them an excellent choice for other tasks where similar concentration is needed. In some games like Assassins Creed, you’re tasked with solving various puzzles, whereas in others like Halo, Zelda, and World of Warcraft, you set off on long quests only to become enveloped in another world.
Personally, I think the SimCity soundtrack is among the best music for concentration. It’s a city-building game that is designed to draw in players for very long sessions of designing, building and maintaining huge cities.
Where to Find
- YouTube channel dedicated to Video Game Study Mixes.
- Article collection of top 20 Video Game Soundtracks
Best to create white noise to drown out noisy environments and induce relaxation
When it comes to sounds, numerous studies have shown that having a certain noise level can increase creativity and focus, but sudden sounds like lightning or having the volume too loud can detract from the focus benefits. In a study out of the University of Sussex, researchers noted an overall decrease in stress levels by participants listening to nature sounds. However, much like previous studies, the researchers noted that the sounds’ effect on a listener widely varies and depends on that person’s preference and environment.
While nature sounds and ambient sounds are almost the same, I personally propose that nature sounds a better option in some scenarios. Scientists have studied extensively how the brain creates correlations with certain triggers or environments. These triggers are responsible for all kinds of irrational fears, phobias, and how a combat veteran might have his PTSD triggered by a balloon popping. On the bright side, the brain is equally capable of making positive associations with people, objects, and sounds. Therefore if you’ve spent time in a rainforest, or embraced being outside while it was raining, then certain nature sounds may induce a similar state of calm or happiness as when you first experienced them.
So in effect:
(Nature Sound) x (# of Positive Associations) = Stronger Emotional Effect
Where to Find
- Nature Sounds Videos on YouTube sorted by View Count
- Noisli – Browser Based Ambient Sounds
- Defonic – Similar to the one above, different interface
- Noiz.io – $3 Mac or IOS App can live in your menu bar
- Nature Sounds – Free Nature Sounds app for the Android
- TaoMix2 – Best rated Android App for Nature Sounds
- Rainymood – Rain sounds for IOS or Android
Best for inducing a sense of calm and relaxation when feeling stressed
Jaaniste, the author of an academic paper called Approaching the Ambient: Creative Practice and the Ambient Mode of Being, described ambient soundscapes as a way for the listener to be become immersed in the raw materials of the ambient soundscapes, simultaneously experiencing being in the eliminate space where ambient music resides and grounded in the here and now.
The author goes on to say “the ambient mode involves engaging with our surrounding as an ambient pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background.” In layman’s terms, there is evidence to indicate that ambient sounds help orient the mind towards the present which helps to alleviate anxiety towards the future.
- Brain.fm is an IOS/Android app I personally use on a consistent basis to read and write
Best for making college students feel smarter than they really are.
I grew up reading in books and hearing from teachers that classical music makes you smarter. I even remember one class where the teacher would occasionally play classical music during study sessions. This led to having a feeling that I wasn’t that smart because I never enjoyed listening to classical music in the first place.
However, I was much surprised there exists little evidence linking classical music to better focus or increased brainpower of any kind. One study focused on radiologists, but just 8 of them, making the study inconclusive. While all but one noted an increase in concentration, such a minuscule number of participants makes this more of a side-project than an actual study.
Much more research has been done to study links between Classical music and its ability to increase IQ. The term “Mozart Effect” was originally coined by Alfred Tomatis, a French researcher in 1991, who believed that the music of Mozart could, in a sense, retrain the ear and promote healing and brain development. His theories have since been popularized by Don Campbell, author of the 1997 book The Mozart Effect, which expressed controversial views that music could reduce stress, depression, and even improve dyslexia, ADHD, autism and other disorders and diseases.
A 1993 study claimed that participants had Spatial IQ scores that were 8 and 9 points higher after listening to a Mozart Sonata for 10 minutes, which in-part helped to popularize the idea that classical music is associated and can make you smarter. Unfortunately, several studies have since been done, including ones from Yale and Harvard, that propose no scientific evidence showing any benefit from listening to classical music and having a higher IQ or other reasoning ability.
Despite all the above, music is highly subjective and the benefits are individualized to the person, environment, and context. Any kind of music, especially the type without lyrics has been shown to be beneficial.
Where to Listen
Electronic Music (No Lyrics)
Best for Creative work with light attention
The right types of Electronic music can be amazingly serene and can edge between simple ambient melodies to becoming an immersive soundscape that induces flow.
There are many different types of electronic music, but the type I’m referring to here is of the slow variety. I’ve often been able to produce some very creative work with the right types of songs.
Where to Listen
Best when one doesn’t require focus or concentration but instead needs to increase motivation and instill a GSD mentality.
Music in the category of epic is something that creates a feeling of power, is motivating and inspires you to push through obstacles, whether it be fatigue or procrastination. This type of music is likely to be too distracting for any kind of serious work but can be a great way to warm-up and help you to “get in the mode,” so to speak.
Where to Listen
Best for drowning out noisy environment & inducing a state of calm.
Out of all the musical options available to us, it turns out the best thing is plain old silence.
The studies mentioned above for the factory workers were performing relatively boring and repetitive tasks. In these situations, music can provide a sort of arousal to the mind that can help keep oneself engaged in the task at hand. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the book This is Your Brain on Music, states, it’s akin to being a long-distance truck driver and using music to help keep you psychologically engaged.
In the 1980’s, a research study asked participants to listen to a variety of music genres while counting backward. It turns out the people who listened to their favorite upbeat tunes performed the worst while those who listened to silence performed the best. In another study, subjects were given the option to listen to either upbeat or soft music of their preferred genre, or nothing, while counting backward. The people who listened to their favorite, upbeat tunes did worst of all, and those who heard silence did best.
The exception seems to be when you’re in a noisy office environment, or other environments that are at risk for loud or sudden sounds. In these cases, white noise can be beneficial in improving focus. However, it’s unproven as to whether any kind of music (lyrics or otherwise) is more beneficial than white noise when performing work that requires any kind of deep focus, such as writing.
From another perspective, scientists have shown by playing music and sounds while scanning brains, that sound of any kind generates neural activity in the brain. With this, one might hypothesize that it would be helpful to have periods of quietness every so often to help give the brain a rest.
How to Listen to Nothing
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones
- Cowin E7 Noise Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones
- Door Seal to block out sounds from other rooms
- Window Seal for extra Soundproofing
- White Noise Generator
In Summary: What’s the best?
Despite the myriad of scientific studies on various types of music, it all comes down to individual preference. Music can indeed help you be more productive or run faster, but the same type of music that helps somebody else might not be best for you. For exercise, find something that brings up an emotion, but for deep-focus work, ambient sounds or silence is best.
Music is an incredible experience that is thousands of years in the making, it can make us happy, sad, excited or motivated and so much more.