Do you ever find yourself sitting down for a study session and struggling to concentrate? Does the murmur of other users in the library or the sound of kids playing outside pull you out of the zone and leave you struggling to think? If so, you’re not alone! A lot of people find that they need to block out distractions to allow themselves to work. Music can be really handy for this.
Music makes great background noise, and as long as the music isn’t something that you really love and want to sit and sing along to or listen to, you will find that you can focus better with a good song on in the background.
Music and Unconscious Attention
Researchers have found that we have two forms of attention span. One is conscious, and the other is unconscious.1 Our conscious attention span is the bit that allows us to get things done, and that focuses on complex tasks. The unconscious one is what kept us alive when we were running from predators. If you’re working alone in a quiet room and you hear a sound, your unconscious attention system will snap to that sound and start assessing what it was. Is it a threat? Should you be ready to move? That’s why small noises can become big distractions.
If you’re working on something that isn’t particularly exciting, and you’re struggling to pay attention to it, then you’re going to end up being distracted too easily by random noises.2 Music can drown out those distracting sounds. It produces pleasurable feelings, and it’s a non-invasive noise that will help to quiet your unconscious attention system.
Does the Type of Music Matter?
Scientists are divided on the idea of whether the type of music matters. On the one hand, it could be argued that instrumental music is best for helping you focus, because human speech is something that our brains are hardwired to pay attention to.3 On the other hand, the impact of music is something that can vary from person to person, depending on their personal tastes, so what works for one person could be unpleasant or distracting for another.4 People perform better when they find the music playing in the background to be neutral or likable, but their performance may be impaired if they strongly dislike, or like, the song that is playing.
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The impact of music on the brain is something that can be noticed even in childhood. In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a craze for parents to expose young children to classical music in the hopes of making their children smarter.5 More recent research suggests that if a child listens to music then this will indeed stimulate neural growth in their auditory cortex, but that the music doesn’t have to be Mozart. Any form of music would offer similar benefits. Interestingly, studying music composition can offer greater benefits in terms of IQ-boosting than just listening to music.
Create Your Working Environment
If you are going to use music to try to improve your focus and concentration, then it’s a good idea to try to create a working environment that suits you. Some people use music to help them work in a pattern similar to the pomodoro technique.6 They will make two playlists, and work for the duration of one playlist, then take a break for the duration of the next. They use the music to help themselves get into the zone without watching the clock.
The Sound of Nature
Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that using music that includes sounds of nature is most effective for boosting mood and focus.7 These sounds can help to mask the sound of intelligible speech, and they provide pleasant, relaxing white noise. This boosts a person’s ability to concentrate, improves their mood, and makes workers more productive as well as generally happier. You can achieve a similar result listening to songs that you like, or ones that you are indifferent to. The problem there is that while you can build your own playlist of songs that fit into those categories, it is much harder to build a playlist of songs that a whole office full of people find to be neutral.
Remember, music improves your focus by being sound-masking. If you try to mask out the sound of your irritating coworker by playing a song with lyrics, your focus will simply shift from Sally talking about paper clips to the croonings of your favorite singer.8 The good news is that there are lots of instrumental, focus-boosting and natural playlists on Spotify, so you can find something that will suit you.
If you find that even music isn’t good enough to help you focus, then consider trying Pink Noise. Pink Noise is a lot like white noise, but while white noise comes in the form of one long sound, pink noise includes all of the sounds that are audible to the human ear, with the lower frequency range boosted. It helps to block out annoying sounds and can help to boost your concentration too. There have been a lot of studies done in terms of examining pink noise and sleep,9 but what is particularly interesting is the idea that pink noise can help you to focus better and can improve your memory and creativity.10
There are no magic tricks to make you focus or to make you study if you don’t actually want to get the work done. Changing up your working environment, however, can be effective if you are struggling to concentrate because there are too many distractions. Try aromatherapy, get some exercise, make a point of getting some sleep, and use headphones playing pleasing tunes. Give yourself a fighting chance to get productive, and with luck, you will find that your focus improves and that you’ll find it easier and easier to get into the swing of getting things done.
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