Music. It stirs something deep in the human soul.
Whether you listen to your music loud or soft, early in the morning or constantly, music is an essential part of how we get through the workday. But picking the right music for work is both an art and a science.
Achieving a “flow” state is no accident, and the right music can make you more productive, or have your heart pounding like you just ran a mile. To help you get the most out of your day, I’ve compiled three music hacks that bridge the frontiers of art and science, and will allow you to concentrate and bring out your best.
It may sound strange, but too much silence can be a distraction that saps your productivity. Loud and sudden sounds are an obvious dead end, but a certain baseline level of noise can be just the thing to help you get more done. Coffitivity is a new app that duplicates the coffee shop hum you get at a local cafe even while you sit at your desk.
A recent New York Times article highlighted the productivity benefits of white noise. In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.
The moderate din of a coffee shop has been shown to improve concentration and productivity. So it’s no secret then, why people who can choose such a public and shared environment to get their work done.
When it comes to workplace productivity not all music is created equally. You probably know this intuitively, but there’s a lot of science to back it up.
Like Coffeetivity, the team behind audio productivity app Focus@Will is stacked with geeks and researchers. Focus@Will allows you to choose from several stations of acoustic music hand-selected to get your brain in flow. Alpha Chill, Cinematic, Ambient and Up Tempo are a few of the varieties.
On the Focus@Will blog the team explains, “When choosing music for a workplace, it is best to use music that workers neither like nor dislike.” A happy medium is music that can be noticed and absorbed, but not savored.
“Music that has emotional or sentimental overtones is likely to stimulate your amygdala (emotions) and hippocampus (memory) in your limbic system, and music that is too fast, variable, or loud will jar your locus coeruleus back into action.” The coeruleus is an area of the brain stem that produces nuerotransmitters which stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for your fight or flight response.
The ideal music to reach a state of “flow” plays at 60 beats per minute, and leads to a relaxed but awake sense of decreased self awareness and timelessness, according the the Focus@Will blog. And they say writers, athletes and frequent meditators have separately described the same experience of entering the flow state.
In addition to serving up music to get you into flow, Focus@Will allows you rate your most recent session from 0-100 in terms of productivity.
Music concierge Songza is my go-to for jazz standards that get me in the zone fast.
Songza is very similar to music streaming sites like Spotify, Pandora, GrooveShark, Rdio, MOG and dozens of others, but it’s no accident their Muted Jazz station helps me focus.
Listening to jazz standards from yesteryear gives me a cozy sense of familiarity, and at the same time I feel calmed, more confident and empowered to improvise. In a word, listening to jazz makes me feel unique and valuable.
Turns out I’m not making this up. A pair of Johns Hopkins researchers recruited jazz musicians to participate in a study that used fMRI to monitor brainwave activity while playing improvised music. A summary of the results were published in ‘This Is Your Brain on Jazz.’
“When jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow,” the study says. The results of the fMRI study on musicians showed that activity was halted in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for pre-planned actions and careful decisions, according to the study.
“The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself,” according to the report’s summary.
So the next time you need your work to be spontaneous and focused, think about tuning in to an Internet radio jazz station.
Do you have a favorite musical hack? We’d love to hear how you choose songs to get you through your work day. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Originally published Aug 08, 2013, updated Aug 11, 2020