Do you listen to music to help you concentrate? Does it work? If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a bit of a win-some, lose-some history with the technique—sometimes it’s super effective and you’re in the zone within the first few bars (my personal go-to is Beyoncé’s Lemonade album), but others? Well, let’s just say I’ve joined in on a few too many choruses. But what if we told you that researchers have finally found the answer to why the right music can, in fact, help us focus, and more importantly, what that music is?
Let’s address the issue first. The ability to concentrate and focus on the task at hand, be it a straightforward report or something more complex, is currently particularly weak among us Brits. We may be a nation of stoic “keep calm and carry on” merch, but a recent study revealed that a whopping 62% of us regularly struggle to concentrate or focus on what we’re carrying on with. A quarter of those polled also admitted to having found themselves in hot water at the office due to a lack of concentration. So the struggle is real, and science feels our pain.
Now, what’s music got to do with it? Well, aside from the popular (though regularly debated) Mozart effect theory, which claims that listening to Mozart compositions can boost overall intelligence and performance, several academic studies do back up the idea that listening to music can have a profound effect on stimulating and focusing the brain, especially when it comes to battling a room full of potential distractions (hello, open-plan office).
Enter the groundbreaking research…
For the past five years, sound engineers, music producers and neuroscientists have been working together at L.A.-based company Focus@Will to delve into what kinds of beats and bass lines really make our brains tick. And after some rigorous testing, they’ve managed to compose a whole host of tracks that address the level of stimulation the brain needs to stay engaged in a task without tipping over into the realms of disruption.
“What we’ve created is really unique, in that it works by carefully managing the relationship between your unconscious mind and the ‘you’ that is trying to get some work done,” founder Will Henshall tells me. “All the music is instrumental and has been scientifically designed and produced to soothe that little voice in your head that keeps popping up when you’re trying to dig into the day’s work.”
“The system works for two people out of every three who try it, and most people find that there is one particular channel or stream (we offer several, tailored to different personality types) that works perfectly for them,” he adds. While Will can’t reveal the exact secret formula that makes his compositions so effective, he did drop this nugget: “The rule of thumb is the more difficulty you have focusing in general, the more energy you need in the music.”
On that note, here’s a breakdown of the key things to remember when selecting music to boost your concentration, with a little help from science and the Focus@Will team.
Baroque Is Best (at Least for Most People)
If you don’t know where to start, and Beyoncé’s just not working for you this time, classical music of the baroque persuasion could be your best bet. A 2009 study found that playing baroque music (think string quartets, a little woodwind) helped radiologists improve their diagnostic efficiency and accuracy, while Focus@Will have just launched a brand-new channel, Einstein’s Genius, inspired by the fact that Albert Einstein reportedly swore by playing music by baroque composer Bach on his violin to rev up his brain and get into a “flow state”—when creative and analytical thinking, not to mention groundbreaking innovation, come easiest.
Don't Be Afraid To Go Electro
While it might not be your usual musical preference, electronic music is up there with baroque as one of the most popular genres for boosting the brain. You’ll need to consider the pace of the music though. According to Focus@Will research, beats that range from eight to 14 hertz are best for lulling your brain into a focused, creative state. If it’s stress that’s blocking your concentration, however, studies have concluded that music with 60 beats per minute is ideal to help soothe and inspire (brilliantly, it could also help you stay focused while working out, too).
Steer Clear of Lyrics and Chart Music
Whether you’re reading, writing or calculating, most researchers agree that music with lyrics can be the most distracting. Music that you particularly enjoy isn’t all that helpful, either. “If you listen to regular music that you enjoy, or that engages you, then you will become distracted because it divides your attention between what you are trying to do and the emotional impact of the notes or words,” explains Will. To reap the benefits of concentration music, you need to be ever so slightly indifferent to it, agrees one 2011 study.
Try A Mash-Up—It Worked For Me
Back to Focus@Will’s new Einstein’s Genius channel. Given that the most effective brain-boosting music has been found to be baroque and electro, Will and his team have fused the two together for a “Bach-tronic” style hybrid that’s so far proven to be very effective.
“We tested this new hybrid music with 1800 people,” says Julia Mossbridge, MA, PhD, a neuroscientist and Focus@Will’s science director. “We found that it improves verbal memory, it improves creativity, it improves task persistence, and it improves the ability to feel like you can actually get something done, which turns out to be related to your ability to [actually] perform.”
Now, I’ll confess I’m no sophisticate who listens to classical composers. Unless we’re mid-spin or HIIT class, I’m not that into electro-trance, either. But nevertheless, I decided to put the Einstein Genius stream on trial while writing this article—in a central London Pret-a-Manger during the lunch rush with just a few hours to go until deadline, no less. After all, it’s not a real test if the stakes aren’t high, right?
The results, I have to say, were surprising. Not only did I feel more intensely involved in what I was doing, but I worked more quickly, my brain felt clearer, and the small amount of background noise that did make it through my earphones had very little effect in distracting me. So while I may not be a fan of Bach straight-up, it appears that during the working hours at least, my brain is rather partial to a little mash-up!
To explore the Focus@Will music streams for yourself, subscribe at FocusatWill.com.