Music is certainly something that the human mind enjoys. The evidence is all around us. Many of us listen to music every day, and there can be a number of reasons behind our motives, from sheer pleasure, to distraction, to enhancement of the learning state. Yes, you heard me right on the last one.
Scientists have long been interested in the link between music and the brain, in particular whether it can help you to focus, learn and be more productive. One possible reason why it might, is that we operate on a two-attention system. We direct conscious attention at will, but we also have an unconscious system that scans for stimuli in our environment – in other words, our unconscious mind seeks out distractions.
The more bored or disengaged we feel with a task, the more likely our unconscious attention system will successfully seek out these distractions, and the less stimulating they need to be to grab us. It seems that music gives us an often non-invasive noise to ‘distract’ ourself with, occupying our unconscious attention enough to increase focus on the task at hand.
This effect is amplified if the task is defined and repetitive, and there isn’t much that you need to consciously process it. In this case, we can ‘switch off’ with the music, with the added benefit of increased mood and therefore enhanced productivity. This is why music is now being introduced in workplaces, and why poker professionals who play long live or online sessions in which most of the decisions are automatic, have long used music this way.
But music does more than just occupy our unconscious attention. Dr Masha Godkin of NCU notes that music activates both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and can also allow brainwaves to sink from beta into alpha, helping to improve learning and memory.
It’s clear that music can have a positive impact on focus (though it always depend on the individual, and also the task), so it was only natural that researchers wanted to find out more about what sort of music worked best. Certain music seems to provoke certain emotional and bio-chemical reactions, and so it was found that motivational music might encourage physical exercise, whilst classical or electronic music may aid concentration. Other factors like volume, pitch and tempo are also considerations.
Human speech has been identified as being one of the biggest distracting forces, especially if you are working on a project that involves the use of language and conceptualization. If a working space is noisy, music can also be used as ‘sound masking’ to create a more desirable and less distracting environment.
More recent research has taken the debate in a fresh direction. It’s true that some genres of music lends themselves better to relaxation and focus than others, but our own preference may play a key role.
A study by Scientific Report conducted MRI scans on individuals as they listened to various genres of music, as well as their own favorite songs. In a sock finding, the research revealed that the participants favorite songs activated the ‘default mode network’ of the brain, an area which connects thoughts about the environment (or task) with self-referential thoughts, an ideal mindset for studying and productivity, and one that may even have wider applications in neurological disorders and mental health.
Music can help you to focus! Aim to work with music that lends itself well to concentration; relaxing and free of lyrics, but also listen to what you enjoy if you want to reap the benefits.