Music Helps You Focus. And Science Proves It!

January 19, 2022 20 Min Read

According to science, music helps you focus, promotes creativity, and improves memory. Impressed? In today’s article, we explore some of the best beats for work and studying and explore how you can use them to get more done. It’s time to create your very own productivity playlist for 2022!

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🧘‍♀️ All the Cool Ways Music Helps You Focus

🎻 Classical Music and the Mozart Effect 

Brahms, Pachelbel, Mozart, classical music has a lot to offer in terms of acoustic pleasure. But did you know it can also help you work and study more effectively?

Avid music listeners claim classical music helps you focus, improves sleep, and even fends off the “black dog” of depression. On top of this anecdotal evidence, there’s a ton of scientific research to prove classical music’s benefits.

A breakthrough 1993 study found that listening to classical music for 10 minutes — the study used Mozart’s sonata K448 — can temporarily improve spatial and reasoning skills, a phenomenon known as the “Mozart effect.”(4)

💡 Did you know: On June 23, 1940, BBC aired the first edition of a “Music While You Work” radio program meant to improve productivity among the UK’s factory workers. The feedback was surprisingly positive, with some managers reporting a 12.5-15% output increase attributed to background music.(5)

In 2016, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) helped researchers reveal a link between music and parts of the brain that process motivation/rewards. The authors of the study believe the discovery may one day be used to improve performance in cognitively demanding tasks.(6)

While the attempts to replicate the original 1993 experiment have seen mixed results, many researchers point to a correlation, if only an indirect one, between popular music and productivity. The only condition? You should listen to the music you enjoy.(7) 

👉 How to Listen to Classical Music

  • Try different composers to see what works for you.
  • Keep the volume down so it doesn’t get distracting.
  • Reward yourself with music following a Pomodoro session.
  • Listen to the type and genre of music you enjoy!

🔉 Classical Music Playlist

⚪️ Pink, Brown, and White Noise

Ok, so what about other types of sounds? If music helps you focus, there must be a way to use a different kind of stimuli to achieve similar results.

You’ve probably heard the term “white noise” that describes an artificial sound similar to TV or radio static. But did you know that white noise, and other “sonic hues,” can also boost your work performance?

In 2019, researchers used fMRI to test the impact of low-intensity noise on memory performance. They found that moderate levels of white noise can improve performance during cognitive tasks.(1)

A different study at the University of Queensland found that listening to white noise enhances cognitive function and helps adults memorize new words.

🔎 “The noise group demonstrated superior recall accuracy over time, which was not impacted by participant attentional capacity. Recognition accuracy was near ceiling for both groups. These findings suggest that white noise has the capacity to enhance lexical acquisition.”

​​—White Noise Enhances New-Word Learning in Healthy Adults(2)

🌧 Pink Noise🌊 Brown Noise📻 White Noise
gentle rainfallstrong waterfallTV or radio static
less powerful on lower frequenciesstronger at lower frequenciesequal intensity across frequencies
falling asleepmasking distractionsmemorization/recall
masking distractions
cognitive performance

Pink noise is another sonic hue you should include in your playlist. Similar to the sound of gentle rainfall, pink noise is deeper than white noise. It can help you fall asleep quicker, improve sleep quality, and feel more rested the next day.(3)

🗯 Productivity Music Trivia: If pink, brown, and white noise are not enough for you, explore other sonic hues like blue, violet, and grey. And remember, there’s nothing like good ol’ “black noise” which is… silence.

Finally, brown noise, aka Brownian or “random walk” noise, is even deeper and more potent at lower frequencies. That makes it an excellent alternative if you’re looking for a mellow humming to doze off to during a mid-day power nap.

👉 How to Listen to Sonic Hues

  • Use white/brown/pink noise to block unwanted background noises.
  • Listen to moderate-volume white noise for memorization/recall tasks.
  • Experiment with all three sonic hues to improve your quality of sleep.
  • Be sure to explore other sonic hues and find your perfect match.
  • Get a white noise machine if you have difficulty falling asleep.

🔉 Pink/Brown/White Playlist

🎞 Movie Scores and Soundtracks 

In Limitless, a struggling writer turns his life around popping experimental, brain-boosting pills. The first thing he does? He cleans his cluttered apartment and writes a best-selling novel to the beats of Ash Grunwald’s Walking.

It’s pretty powerful stuff.

You probably have a list of favorite movies that give you goosebumps on every rewatch. Listening to movie soundtracks you associate with empowering scenes (even if it’s just ambient music) is a great way to fuel your productivity and get more done.

🍿 Soundtrack Trivia: Did you know that movie scores and soundtracks are two different things? Soundtracks feature existing music used in a movie while a score is made up of original tracks composed specifically for the production.

Love video games?

The good news is video game music improves concentration in the exactly same way. Game scores are specifically composed to modulate tempo and mood so they will keep you sharp and engaged, even during the most mundane tasks.

💬 “The music will settle back, and you’ll be just be wandering around the submarine, listening to the little gurgling sounds and beeping. Then the music will suddenly wander in and comment on what’s happening. Then it will just ease out again in a way that feels very subtle and unobtrusive.”

—Winifred Phillips, an interview with Game Developer(8)

From Hans Zimmer’s “Mombasa” (Inception) through Vangelis’s Blade Runner theme to Yasunori Mitsuda’s Chrono Trigger… When it comes to choosing the best ambient music for focus, the entertainment industry has you covered.

👉 How to Listen to Movie/Game Scores

  • Pick the right tempo and mood for a specific task.
  • Use the music you associate with motivational scenes.
  • Avoid music with lyrics (not songs) to avoid distraction.
  • Use movie/game scores as your background music.
  • Avoid experimental music.

🔉 Movie Scores Playlist

🎙 Audiobooks and Podcasts

Podcasts and audiobooks are taking the world by storm. According to a 2021 survey by Edison Research, 116 million Americans tune in to podcasts each month while131 million have listened to at least one audiobook in 2021.(9)

Apart from the entertainment value, audiobooks and podcasts are excellent alternatives to conventional media outlets. They boost productivity by providing affordable and accessible learning opportunities you can enjoy on the go.

As one r/productivity Reddit user commented:

💬 “I’m on the road maybe 6-8 hours at a stretch, depending on the trip, and as such, I’ve managed to get roughly an additional four-year degree’s worth of knowledge from audiobooks on business, productivity, history… you name it. My only rule is that it has to be nonfiction.”(10)

The question is: Are audiobooks on par with regular books?

Many bookworms argue that listening to audiobooks is “cheating.” But a group of researchers at the UC Berkeley Gallant Lab discovered that narrated texts activate the brain in a similar way physical books do.(11)

Granted. Listening to audiobooks and podcasts while trying to focus may not be the best idea. But getting that knowledge pumping during a morning jog or gym workout is a great way to consume valuable information hands-free.

👉 How to Listen to Podcasts

  • Create your own “commuter” radio with curated podcasts. 
  • Listen to audiobooks during repetitive tasks or work breaks.
  • Pick books that are short and easy to listen to. 
  • Experiment with playback speed depending on the situation.
  • Build a podcast playlist to support your learning goals.

🔉 Podcast Playlist

  1. Jocko Podcast by Jocko Willink and Echo Charles (Apple Podcasts, Audible, Spotify)
  2. Side Hustle Pro by Nicaila Matthews Okome (SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Spotify)
  3. The Tim Ferriss Show by Tim Ferris (Apple Podcasts, Spotify)
  4. Ted Talks Daily by TED (Apple Podcasts, Spotify)

🧠 ASMR (“Brain Tingles”)

Autonomous sensory meridian response, more commonly known as ASMR, is a physical sensation some people experience in response to auditory or visual “triggers.” The first peer-reviewed ASMR study published in 2015 defines ASMR as a:

🔎 “[…] sensory phenomenon, in which individuals experience a tingling, static-like sensation across the scalp, back of the neck and at times further areas in response to specific triggering audio and visual stimuli.”(12)

The type of trigger varies from person to person. Some experience “brain tingles” listening to people whispering to a microphone. For others, the trigger may be anything from scratching or tapping to crunching and chewing.

🤫 ASMR Trivia: In 2009, Jennifer Allen browsed the Internet in search of a scientific explanation of her experience with “brain tingles.” She eventually found a forum thread “Weird sensation feels good” and contributed in a follow-up. In 2010, she created a Facebook group and coined the term autonomous (spontaneous) sensory (referring to senses) meridian (signifying a climax) response (triggered by something).(13)

Ever since ASMR surfaced in 2010, millions of people have been tuning in to the ripe pool of ASMR videos in search of relaxation and sound sleep.

And for all the good reasons. 

A study conducted in 2018 at the University of Sheffield showed that engaging with ASMR triggers can lower heart rate and positively impact mental and physical health.(14) The original 2015 study we mentioned earlier demonstrated that listening to ASMR can alleviate chronic pain and help manage symptoms of depression.(12) 

Tuning into ASMR videos is an excellent way to destress and unwind after a productive day. It will keep you from burning out, prepare your mind for new challenges, and help you fall asleep much quicker and with less toss and turn.

👉 How to Listen to ASMR

  • Try different ASMR triggers to find what works for you.
  • Use ASMR when you have trouble falling asleep.
  • Make sure to put on your headphones for the best experience.
  • Join ASMR communities like r/asmr for recommendations. 
  • Avoid listening to ASMR videos at work or it’ll make you sleepy!

🔉 ASMR Playlist

📖 “Study With Me” Videos

Who would’ve thought watching other people study for hours on end can be so addictive? “Study with me,” (aka “gongbang), is a trend that originated in South Korea and spread across every possible video streaming platform.

In a nutshell, “study with me” boils down to people recording themselves taking notes, reading books, and pulling all the usual study moves in total silence. It’s like having a study buddy to keep you company and help you maintain structure around the clock.

💬 “In my experience, studying with someone is a huge motivator and keeps me grounded when I get distracted. For the times in which I can’t study with someone else (like now in quarantine or just anytime I can’t hang out w/someone) a video like that can be a good replacement.”

—bbkp15 at r/GetStudying(18)

Study with me videos improve concentration, help fend off distractions, and add an extra layer of accountability to avoid procrastination.

There’s an aesthetic value too. Many gongbang creators use countdown timers and mellow lo-fi beats to set the right mood and stand up from the crowd.

While there’s still little scientific evidence to study with me videos, gongbang seems to carry some of the same benefits coworking spaces do. Of course, that doesn’t include the occasional watercooler chit-chat. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.(19)

At the end of the day, the power of coworking lies in that quiet atmosphere of productivity. Seeing others getting work done is motivating in itself. It also creates a self-perpetuating cycle of accountability that keeps you on track.

👉 How to Watch “Study With Me” Videos

  • Watch study with me with headphones on for the best effect. 
  • Take breaks when necessary, preferably every 30-45 minutes.
  • Use study with me videos for others tasks like learning or reading.
  • You can also listen to gongbang as a form of unintentional ASMR!

🌧 Relaxing Nature Sounds

The COVID-induced wave of remote work has let many of us see past cubicles and (re)connect with nature. If you’re a city dweller and long for that primordial bond, you can still listen to your favorite nature sounds at your home office.

In 2015, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered that playing nature sounds in an office environment improves workers’ mood and cognitive abilities. Using nature sounds is even more effective than typical masking sounds like white noise.(15)

Another interesting study from 2018 found that nature sounds like the sound of rain can enhance cerebral alertness and improve performance in arithmetic operations.

🔎 “[…] auditory stimulus consisting of high tempo, unfamiliar classical music pieces, as well as rain sounds (a storm with intense rain and occasional thunder), improved performance and quickened RTs during difficult arithmetic calculations.”

When Listening to Rain Sounds Boosts Arithmetic Ability(16)

There’s a reason why many people find it easier to relax and doze off to nature sounds like a crackling fire, running water, and birds chirping. Multiple studies have demonstrated we’re wired for processing those signals and thrive in their midst.

🔎 “Natural sounds, usually considered the most complex and informational of sound types, can provide information on species, season, and temporality and it is likely that we are attuned to such cues.”

A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye(17)

Whenever you feel your creative juices are running out, put on your headphones, play your favorite “nature playlist,” and take a daring step into the woods. Just like Thoreau did when he settled near the Walden Pond to find inspiration in 1845 (minus the headphones).

👉 How to Listen to Nature Sounds

  • Use nature sounds to fall asleep or relax after work.
  • Play low-volume nature sounds at your home office.
  • Take a break, close your eyes, and soak up the atmosphere. 

🔉 Nature Sounds Playlist

🚨 In-App Microinteractions 

Of all auditory stimuli, micro-interactions are probably the most underappreciated. Most of the time, you don’t even notice they’re there. 

The Nielsen Norman Group defines microinteractions as “trigger-feedback pairs” in which specific user actions evoke a feedback response. Those interactions encourage and reward users to interact with an operating system, app, or piece hardware.

💡 “User-initiated triggers can consist of a GUI command or can be gestural or voice-based, whereas a system-initiated trigger involves meeting a set of predetermined conditions.”

—“Microinteractions in User Experience”(20)

Auditory microinteractions can include anything from a simple “tick” sound when you check off a task in a to-do app to a “ding” when a Pomodoro timer goes off. Some iconic microinteractions include Apple Mail’s “whoosh” or Messenger’s “ding” sound.

On the scientific end of things, microinterations rely on dopamine—it’s the same neurotransmitter that makes checking your phone so exciting. While the mechanism, known as the “dopamine loop,” is often exploited for driving digital addiction, it can become a powerful productivity driver when paired with positive behaviors. 

The primary purpose of microinteractions is to improve user engagement, provide information about system status, and prevent (repetitive) user errors. And all that seems like a great recipe for improving productivity, even if it’s in an indirect way.

🐑 Parting Words

At the end of the day, it’s all in the ear of the beholder. Your dream productivity playlist should be curated by your taste as well as the type of task. And sometimes, it’s best to turn down the volume and enjoy silence. Here’s a recap of what we just learned. 👇

  • Slow and instrumental music helps you focus on complex tasks.
  • Faster, more dynamic tracks are best for shallow, repetitive tasks.
  • Keep the volume at a low/moderate level.
  • Use closed-back headphones to avoid sound leakage.
  • If you choose songs (with lyrics), pick a language you don’t understand.
  • Use music as a reward for completing a task or a Pomodoro session.
  • Pick longer tracks so you don’t have to fiddle with controls.
  • And remember, music you enjoy = the best music for productivity!

To help you surround yourself with the right beats, we implemented an Embed function in Taskade. You can now add music and videos directly to your Projects from services like YouTube, Soundcloud, Loom, Vimeo, and others.

Sign up for a free Taskade account to check it out! 👈

🔗 Resources