When we’re feeling stressed out by deadlines or simply need to boost our productivity, many of us reach for the headphones and whatever our particular flavor of mood music happens to be that day. But does music really help us concentrate? And if so, how?
Feeling Better Means Working Better
The first aspect is very simple: music makes us happy, and when we’re happy, we’re more productive. Specifically, listening to melodious sounds triggers the release of dopamine in our brains, which brings about feelings of contentment and tranquility. It’s the same as receiving a pleasant sensation from any one of our senses — like smelling a rose, eating a delicious pastry, or looking at a beautiful scene.
Our memories are also quite powerfully linked to the music we love. Listening to songs that we connect with positive memories of loved ones or great experiences we’ve had creates a personal sense of happiness that helps bolster our mood while we work. Especially if what you’re working on is repetitive or uninteresting, it can keep the other parts of your brain busy so that you don’t focus on all the things you’d rather be doing.
While some companies don’t permit using headphones at work because it’s considered a distraction, research indicates that the opposite is true. After all, no workplace on earth exists in perfect silence. You may not be distracted by your music, but you’ll almost certainly be distracted by someone else’s conversation on the phone, the noises of the copier or printer running, the gurgling of the coffee machine, horns honking on the street outside, the clacking of your coworkers’ keyboards, etc…
These are the sounds that truly prevent us from focusing on our work, and some people are much more sensitive to these minor sonic distractions than others. Especially in an open office space with no barriers to block the spread of noise, listening to music can be a necessary escape from the hectic sonic landscape around us. Of course, it’s important to wear headphones and keep the volume controlled so that your music doesn’t become distracting to those around you!
Choose the Right Tunes
Music in and of itself isn’t a magic cure-all to all problems of focus, boredom, and straight-up laziness. And in some situations, listening to music won’t help at all. If your work requires your brain to be actively engaged or to be learning something new, listening to music that’s heavy on the lyrics or complex melodies will only inhibit your ability to focus. Getting lost in the lyrics can be great if you’re doing manual labor, but if you’re attempting to write an article or study new
information, it won’t do you any favors to be splitting the focus of the language center in your brain.
On the other hand, something mellow, with a low-key beat and ambient vocals, if any, can certainly set the mood you need to be creative and maintain your concentration. It also helps to listen to music that you already know and love. Research shows that when we listen to a song for the first time, our brains will struggle to predict what happens next in the melody or the beat; when it’s a familiar tune, though, we can relax and enjoy it.
So go ahead and make yourself a playlist for your next big project — and, if necessary, make the case to your boss that it’s necessary for your concentration. Science is on your side!
John Morabito is a recording artist and contributing author at Rivington Music, where he supplies the music blog with recording tips. When he’s not writing, John can usually be found jamming at the Rivington rehearsals studio or exploring his hometown of NYC.