My subscription to Spotify just ended and I feel weird.
Music is a powerful force and directly impacts how I think, feel, and act. From designing a playlist for the gym to finding those perfect couple of tracks to listen to while making dinner, I’ve noticed that music has a place in almost everything I do.
Without music there’s a void. And the place that I’ve missed my music the most is at work. I have specific playlists for writing, sketching ideas, and Sunday night emailing but I often wonder why I’m choosing certain songs for certain tasks.
I started to do some research and I noticed the direct influence music has on work is often misunderstood.
Probably the most infamous of the studies on the impact of music on brain happened in 1993, when a collection of research found that you can temporarily improve your spatial-reasoning abilities by listening to Mozart. This was coined the Mozart Effect and had parents everywhere thinking they could create the next prodigy with a pair of headphones and a Mozart sonata.
The results of the Mozart Effect studies have since been put into question. But research like this has researchers hunting for what makes music so powerful.
The 4 ways sound effects you
Julien Treasure, is the founder of The Sound Agency, a UK-based consulting firm that helps brands develop and use sound effectively. In his TED talk, “The 4 ways sound affects us,” Treasure outlines the four main ways sound impacts you:
Sound directly effects how your body functions. If you hear a siren in the background of a song, stress hormones like cortisol are released into your blood stream. Meanwhile, listening to waves gently rolling ashore brings a sense of calmness to your body. Treasure says this happens because the sound of ocean waves are close to 12 beats per minute, which is similar to your resting breathe rate.
Different tones can make us feel happy or sad. The effect of sound on our emotional state can be traced back through thousands of years of evolution. This is why birds chirping in the morning make you feel reassured, says Treasure. From an evolutionary perspective, if birds are singing it means things are safe.
Sound can have a direct impact on how you process information. To focus on two different auditory sources at the same time is nearly impossible for us. We are bad at multi-tasking, especially when it comes to processing sound. This is why studies have shown that open plan offices can drop your productivity.
Music is so powerful that it can push you to act. If an ambulance goes blaring by, you’ll naturally try to shield your ears or move away. If someone screams in your ear, you’ll flinch.
The impact of sound on your core functioning is real and recent research has shown that there may be ways you can harness the power of music and use it to your advantage.
Picking the right music for the job
Everyones musical tastes vary. Songs that motivate me to get work done, may not be the best for you, which makes it difficult to pinpoint music that could work for everybody.
Scientists believe that your musical tastes were likely fully programmed by the age of 16.
If you think back to the type of music you listened to as a teenager, there’s a good chance that you still enjoy this type of music. At least that’s what neuroscientist and music expert Daniel Levitin found when he uncovered the latest research around musical preferences.
Levitin noted that your musical tastes begin forming in the womb. By 24 weeks, the human fetus has a fully functional auditory system and can hear music through the amniotic fluid (an experience similar to listening under water). By your first year, you begin showing a preference for certain types of music.
Levitin’s research indicates that around the age of 10, rapid musical absorption begins to slow down as your brain starts to remove unused neural circuitry. After that, influences from your culture, memories, and friends round out your musical preferences. Levitin states,
“Most of us base our adult musical tastes on what we liked when we were twelve to sixteen. In some cases, through effort, we can expand our musical tastes as adults. But if we had relatively narrow tastes in our developing years, this is more difficult to do.”
How do you know what music will work best for productivity?
In general, it’s a good idea to listen to music you enjoy while you work.
A study published in the Journal of Music Therapy noted that listening to your favorite type of music – whether it be uptempo rock or slow jazz – lowers your perception of tension.
For simple tasks, listen to music you enjoy
The easier you think a task is, the more music can help you.
That’s exactly what this study found when they looked at the accuracy of experienced surgeons while listening to music.
The results of the research showed that the surgeons were most efficient and accurate when music was playing in the background compared to no music at all.
Similar studies have documented that performance improves while listening to music if the task is perceived as “simple” or monotonous like answering email or copying data into a file.
When it comes to tasks you feel are simple or boring, listening to music you enjoy can put you in a positive state of mind, improve your productivity, and quality of work.
Press pause when learning something new
If a task is new to you, like learning a foreign language or learning how to write code, playing music could harm your ability to absorb new information properly.
The more mentally demanding a task is for you, the less room your brain has for processing additional information.
If you’re faced with a challenging task, even faint musical chords playing in the background can have a negative impact on your performance because your brain must dedicate resources to help you process both the task and the music. This is called cognitive interference.
Here’s a graphic showing what happens in your brains while working on two actions at once (Action A, Action B). You’ll notice that an area of the brain is activated to help you handle switching between tasks:
I’ve seen this effect when I’m driving. If I’m trying to follow directions to a place I’ve never been, the directions feel easier to understand if I turn off the music. I can focus, find my bearings, and navigate to the right place. But if music is playing, it’s like there’s a barrier between me and understanding the directions.
For creative tasks, target songs between 50-80 beats per minute
It can be hard to find the right music for every occasion. Since musical preferences vary widely, researchers have found that one of the best ways to decide on the right music is to look for songs in a certain beats per minute range. When you need to focus, studies suggest that songs paced at 50-80 beats per minute are best.
Dr. Emma Gray of The British CBT and Counseling Service worked with Spotify to conduct research on the benefits of certain types of music.
Gray’s research found that musical tempo in the range of 50-80 beats per minute can help induce the alpha state in your brain. Your mind becomes calm, alert, and concentration is heightened.
Alpha waves have also been associated with the ‘eureka moment’, a flash of unique insight that triggers when you enter a relaxed, yet focused state of mind.
In her findings, Gray notes that it’s not the musical genre but the tempo that has the most to do with creating a state of flow.
Here’s a breakdown of the different types of music and there impact on productivity and quality of work for different types of tasks:
Music is deeply rooted in our evolution and as a result, can play a significant role in enhancing our productivity and quality of work.
The next time you decide to plug in your tunes, think about the type of task you’re about to do. The right music can help if you need to work on a creative or simple task but if you’re learning something new, it’s best to shut the music off.
Musical preference is different for everyone so choosing songs that make you feel happier and more energized, leads to better work.
I just renewed my Spotify account. There. Now I feel better.