The 5 Best Types of Music for Focus, Productivity and Cognitive Tasks

Blog Mind The 5 Best Types of Music for Focus, Productivity and Cognitive Tasks

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3.8.2024 0 comments

Can you listen to music when you work?

Most people like to play music when cleaning the house, working out, running, or doing chores, but ask 1,000 people whether they listen to music at work, and you’re likely to get a wide range of answers.

For some people, music is a distraction, something that pulls their minds away from the task at hand. For others, it blocks out the world around them so they can more easily focus on that task.

But here’s something you need to know: research has shown that certain types of music will be more distracting than others, and certain types of music will actually enhance productivity.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at both types of music to help you understand how you can use the right type of music to sharpen your focus and skyrocket your productivity.

Music as a Tool For Focus and Productivity

What kind of music helps you focus and be more productive? Science has found some fascinating results on specific music types, which we’ll list here.

1. Familiar Music

Yes, we get it: this isn’t a music type per se, but hear us out.

A study from 2018 [1] found that participants who listened to music they were familiar with experienced higher activation of certain parts of their brains, including:

  • Left superior frontal gyrus (which is important for working memory and concentration)

  • The ventral lateral (VL) nucleus of the left thalamus (which plays a role in motor control and sending signals to your primary motor cortex from the rest of your brain)

  • The left medial surface of the superior frontal gyrus (which is necessary for spatial processing and working memory)

As the study explained, “Music familiarity had a motor pattern of activation. This could reflect an audio-motor synchronization to the rhythm which is more engaging for familiar tunes, and/or a sing-along response in one's mind, anticipating melodic, harmonic progressions, rhythms, timbres, and lyric events in the familiar songs.”

Think about the last time you listened to a familiar song while doing some complex task. Because you were familiar with the music, you experienced less distraction because you knew what to expect, and you found it easier for your mind to automatically move along with the song.

2. Classical Music

One meta-analysis [2] found that “listening to ten minutes of Mozart's music increased the abstract reasoning ability of college students, as measured by IQ scores, by 8 or 9 points compared with listening to relaxation instructions or silence, respectively.”

This has been dubbed the “Mozart effect”.

The meta-analysis determined that the music led to a temporary improvement in participants’ ability to “manipulate shapes mentally”, which enabled them to perform better on the IQ test.

The effect was only temporary—it only lasted as long as the music was playing—but noticeable nonetheless.

3. Soft Instrumental Music

Researchers have found that particularly in open-concept offices, background noise at high levels can disrupt productivity [3]. It’s recommended that playing certain types of low-distraction music aids in concentration and focus.

One of the best types of music for this is soft instrumental music. Research [4] suggests that listening to music while working or studying can actually desensitize you to ambient noise, making you less distractible even when working in loud environments. That same research showed that while music with vocals can disrupt performance of tasks requiring verbal or visuospatial focus, instrumental music doesn’t (at least, not to a significant degree).

The music will be low-distraction and play in the background as you work, keeping ambient noise to a minimum without interfering with your concentration. Plus, instrumental music can lower your anxiety, reduce pain, and combat stress, and even fights depression [5].

4. Sounds of Nature

A study conducted in 2017 [6] concluded that nature sounds and music led to feelings of relaxation and wellbeing, even in busy and stressful environments.

As the study explained, “seed based functional connectivity showed a shift from anterior to posterior midline functional coupling in the naturalistic condition. These changes were accompanied by an increase in peak high frequency heart rate variability, indicating an increase in parasympathetic activity.”

This physical change (in heart rate) led to improved baseline functional connectivity within the brain, particularly the parasympathetic system.

Essentially, the brain was able to communicate more efficiently as a result of reduced stress and improved physical function.

5. Music at 50 to 80 BPM

Research conducted by Spotify (not made public) has suggested that music with between 50 and 80 beats per minute puts your brain into what is called an “alpha state”. In this state, your brain waves slow to 7 to 14 Hz, more relaxed, receptive, and open. It’s in this state that people tend to experience what has been dubbed a “eureka moment” of coming to some important realization or having a significant idea as a result of heightened intuition, imagination, and better memory.

A significant number of pop songs play in this 50 to 80 BPM range, which is one reason they tend to be so popular. You’ll notice that when they come on over the radio or on your playlist, you tend to relax because of the way they encourage the “alpha state” in your brain.

Music that Disrupts Focus and Reduces Productivity

Now that we know what music is good to listen to, it’s important to ask: are there types of music we shouldn’t listen to, music that could cause us to get distracted more easily?

One study [7] looked at exactly that question, comparing four different types of music:

  • Slow tempo, low intensity

  • Slow tempo, high intensity

  • Fast tempo, low intensity

  • Fast tempo, high intensity

All of the participants completed a task in silence, then repeated that task again with the music playing.

Want to guess which proved the most distracting? If you said the “fast tempo, high intensity music”, then you guessed right.

When the fast/high music played, comprehension and the performance on the follow-up questionnaire dropped “significantly below baseline”. Even though the music was instrumental (with no distracting lyrics), the fast tempo and high intensity proved distracting enough that it impaired concentration and decreased productivity.

Should You Listen to Music While Working?

This is a question that everyone needs to answer for themselves.

For some people, any music is a distraction, capable of pulling their focus away from the task at hand or ruining their concentration.

For others, music is an absolute must, a way to drown out the ambient noise of a busy office or workplace, or to keep the sounds of nearby traffic from proving distracting.

In the end, it all comes down to what you prefer and what proves most beneficial for you.

If you can work in silence, then by all means, do so. But if you need music, the information we shared above will make it very easy to pick out the ideal playlist.

You’ve got plenty of options to choose from: music you know and love, classical music like Mozart and Schubert, soft instrumental music, sounds of nature, or any music that plays in the 50 to 80 beats per minute range.

Whatever music helps you focus and be more productive, that’s what should be on your work playlist!










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