ADHD & Study Music: Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid for Optimal Productivity.
Is the Mozart Effect real? Does Classical music actually help you concentrate? Is there real science behind the kind of music you should listen to while studying?
Based on an array of experiments conducted over the last several decades, we know that listening to music while working or studying can improve focus and productivity. Odds are that if you are reading this article, you are listening to music in the background. But not all “study playlists” are created equal. Here, we will look at some of the most important don’ts when selecting “brain food” you consume with your ears. Please also read our companion article on getting the most out of your study music, Ideas in Rhythm: Creating the Perfect Playlist to Unleash the Power of Your Mind and Boost Your Productivity.
How Much Concentration Do You Need? Immersive vs. Non-Immersive Tasks
If you were painting a house and found yourself working on a large area of siding, you wouldn’t want to focus intently of every detail of every brush stroke. That would drive you nuts. The reasonable method would be to strike a balance between a basic level of concentration and some pleasant drifting of the mind. Tasks that are best approached with such a balance are called non-immersive, and the rule for choosing your soundtrack for non-immersive tasks is pretty much, “whatever gets you through the night.”
Immersive tasks, however, require your full concentration. Because musical sounds can either enhance or disrupt your ability to focus, assembling the best possible playlist to accompany your work on immersive tasks is a matter worthy of serious consideration.
Examples of Non-Immersive Tasks
- working out
- assembling familiar components (for example, items you work with daily at your job)
- yard work
Examples of Immersive Tasks
- studying for a class
- solving problems in math or science
- detail work with wood, pottery, or other materials
Is There Actual Science Behind the Concentration Music?
Anyone can share their opinions, but there has been a wealth of science demonstrating the effects of music on immersive tasks.
A study published by The Journal of American Medical Association in 1994 showed that surgeons worked with increased accuracy and efficiency with background music. The experiment proved true regardless of who selected the music, the surgeons with music performed better than those without.
In 1999, the journal of Neuroscience and Behavioral Physiology published a study that measured the speed at which individuals could identify numbers and found that the use of classical or rock music had a positive effect on the the recognition of visual images.
The journal of Psychology of Music also published a study in 2005 which showed that software developers were more efficient, had better moods, and produced higher quality work while listening to music.
Music has also been seen to increase creativity and attention.
Despite contrary notions, there is overwhelming evidence which supports the idea that music can make your concentration more productive and efficient. While most employees gladly put on their headphones and hit the play button, using music to enhance your productivity isn’t as simple as that. Here are the major pitfalls you might be guilty of, when choosing their study playlist.
If you’d like to learn more about how to listen to music intelligently, consider becoming a regular listener of Mozart and Me, a podcast that will help you develop greater musical savvy and enhance your ability to appreciate music deeply and broadly.
The Top 10 Mistakes You Can Make When Choosing Music for Work or Studying
- Choosing the music simply because you like it. Don’t forget that there is a difference between entertainment and concentration. First and foremost, study music needs to be functional: it has to help you complete your tasks. A 2011 Study suggested that concentration is best enhanced by music you neither strongly like nor strongly dislike.
- Choosing music with lyrics. Words inevitably evoke thoughts. Therefore, listening to music with lyrics means committing yourself to multitasking but divided concentration is not productive. All of the best study music is therefore instrumental. Playlists and radio stations with lyrics must be avoided like a plague. They will drain your mental energy, leaving you exhausted and distracted.
- Listening to the hits. Top 40 charts are, for the most part, dominated by songs intended to get you “pumped up” with a boost of adrenaline. That boost can be a great help if you need to rouse yourself out of your post-lunch coma or power through your reps at the gym, but it won’t do much for your ability to map out the genetics of blood-type inheritance. Psychologist Joanne Cantor points out that “Typical popular music interferes with complex tasks and reading comprehension.”
- Choosing music that is heavy, loud, or aggressive. Common sense here: you don’t go to a heavy metal concert or club dance party to do your history homework. Study music should be the kind of music that rewards attention without demanding it. Think of music while studying as programmatic and functional rather than entertaining. There was even a study demonstrating that listening to rock music decreased concentration.
- Listening to “spa” or “relaxation” music. While a driving, aggressive rhythm is a major disruption to mental activity, a total lack of rhythm can empty your mind of any thoughts. That is precisely the purpose of relaxation music — to promote emptiness of the mind. One study actually demonstrated that up-tempo music increased concentration. The study compared an uptempo Mozart piece with a slow moving Albinoni composition and found an enhanced performance on a variety of cognitive tests when listening to the Mozart piece.
- Assembling an incoherent playlist. Imagine yourself slowly walking through a quiet forest. You round a bend in the path, and there are 700 clowns juggling and honking horns. Pretty jarring, right? When your goal is sustained concentration, you don’t want to radically adjust your mood every time your playlist advances to the next selection. This is not to say that your playlist should be monotonous. But its variety, like the individual pieces of music, should be subtle, not nerve-rattling. Let music help you stay in the ‘focused-space’ you need, not be distracted out of it every time you have to adjust the volume or skip a track.
- Using poor quality equipment. Most cheap headphones don’t provide the comfort, clarity, and protection from outside noises that you need to immerse yourself fully in your task. High quality headphones are a more than worthwhile investment for anyone who plans to work to music on a regular basis. If, however, your budget doesn’t allow for such a purchase, consider downloading the wonderful audio enhancement app, Boom 2. It’s volume and equalization controls are stellar.
- Letting advertisers pay the bills for you. If you are using the free versions of Pandora, YouTube, et al., you are regularly bombarded with commercials, which are created with the specific goal of shattering your concentration into tiny, vulnerable bits of consumerism. Maintaining your concentration throughout the month is worth far more than the cost of upgrading to subscription service.
- Avoiding classical music. By “classical music” we mean in the broad sense, referring to everything from Baroque music to late 20th century compositions. This giant catalog of music abounds with pieces that fabulously support concentration and productivity, but for the uninitiated, it can also seem like a vast, foreign, intimidating territory. Listening to Mozart and Me is a great way to learn how to appreciate many different genres of music, including classical.
- Mismatching the mood of your music to the task at hand. Imagine composing an fun blog post about how to throw a great party while listening to B. B. King sing, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’, too.” It’s equally hard to write a somber piece about the effects of Hurricane Matthew on Haiti while listening to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Choose music that expresses moods appropriate for, or complementary to, the task at hand. For more on the effects of music on your emotions, listen to the first several episodes of Mozart and Me.
An Investment That Pays Lifelong Dividends
It should be clear by now that building your ideal study music playlist is going to take some time and research. You may be wondering, “Is it really worth all that?” The answer could not be a more a resounding YES. In this era of beeping, flashing, buzzing distractions everywhere you look, developing your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time will not only make you a more successful student or a more desirable employee, but also add a richness of meaning to all of your daily experiences. A modest investment of time creating outstanding playlists of “music to think by” is surely a very small price to pay for a lifetime of rewards.
PS: Check out my study playlist on Spotify where I have collected many great songs to aid your concentration.
Many people listen to music while they’re carrying out a task, whether they’re studying for an exam, driving a vehicle or even reading a book. Many of these people argue that background music helps them focus.
Why, though? When you think about it, that doesn’t make much sense. Why would having two things to concentrate on make you more focused, not less? Some people even go so far as to say that not having music on is more distracting. So what’s going on there?
It’s not clear why the brain likes music so much in the first place, although it clearly does. Interestingly, there’s a specific spectrum of musical properties that the brain prefers. Experiments by Maria Witek and colleagues reveal that there needs to be a medium level of syncopation in music to elicit a pleasure response and associated body movement in individuals. What this means in plain English is: music needs to be funky, but not too funky, for people to like it enough to make them want to dance.
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Your own experience will probably back this up. Simple, monotonous beats, like listening to a metronome, aren’t really entertaining. They have low levels of syncopation and certainly don’t make you want to dance. In contrast, chaotic and unpredictable music, like free jazz, has high levels of syncopation, can be extremely off-putting and rarely, if ever, entices people to dance.
The middle ground (funk music like James Brown is what the experimenters reference most) hits the sweet spot between predictable and chaotic, for which the brain has a strong preference. Most modern pop falls somewhere within this range, no doubt.
Why would music help us concentrate, though? One argument is to do with attention.
For all its amazing abilities, the brain hasn’t really evolved to take in abstract information or spend prolonged periods thinking about one thing. We seem to have two attention systems: a conscious one that enables us to direct our focus towards things we know we want to concentrate on and an unconscious one that shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant. The unconscious one is simpler, more fundamental, and linked to emotional processing rather than higher reasoning. It also operates faster. So when you hear a noise when you’re alone at home, you’re paying attention to it long before you’re able to work out what it might have been. You can’t help it.
The trouble is, while our conscious attention is focused on the task in hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. And if what we’re doing is unpleasant or dull – so you’re already having to force your attention to stay fixed on it – the unconscious attention system is even more potent. This means that a distraction doesn’t need to be as stimulating to divert your attention on to something else.
Some people argue that one of the best music genres for concentration is the video game soundtrack
Have you ever worked in an open-plan office and been working on a very important task, only to be driven slowly mad by a co-worker constantly sniffing, or sipping their coffee, or clipping their nails? Something quite innocuous suddenly becomes much more infuriating when you’re trying to work on something your brain doesn’t necessarily enjoy.
Music is a very useful tool in such situations. It provides non-invasive noise and pleasurable feelings, to effectively neutralise the unconscious attention system’s ability to distract us. It’s much like giving small children a new toy to play with while you’re trying to get some work done without them disturbing you.
Type of music
However, it’s not just a matter of providing any old background noise to keep distractions at bay. A lot of companies have tried using pink noise (pdf) – a less invasive version of white noise – broadcasting it around the workplace to reduce distractions and boost productivity. But views on the effectiveness of this approach are mixed at best.
It seems clear that the type of noise, or music, is important. This may seem obvious: someone listening to classical music while they work wouldn’t seem at all unusual, but if they were listening to thrash metal it would be thought very strange indeed.
While the nature and style of the music can cause specific responses in the brain (funky music compels you to dance, sad music makes you melancholy, motivational music makes you want to keep fit), some studies suggest that it really is down to personal preference. Music you like increases focus, while music you don’t impedes it. Given the extreme variation in musical preferences from person to person, exposing your workforce or classroom to a single type of music would obviously end up with mixed results.
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Music also has a big impact on mood – truly bleak music could sap your enthusiasm for your task. Something else to look out for is music with catchy lyrics. Musical pieces without wordsmight be better working companions, as human speech and vocalisation is something our brains pay particular attention to.
Video game soundtracks
Some people argue that one of the best music genres for concentration is the video game soundtrack. This makes sense, when you consider the purpose of the video game music: to help create an immersive environment and to facilitate but not distract from a task that requires constant attention and focus.
Limitations in the technology used for early games consoles meant the music also tended to be fairly simplistic in its melodies – think Tetris or Mario. In a somewhat Darwinian way, the music in video games has been refined over decades to be pleasant, entertaining, but not distracting. The composers have (probably unintentionally) been manipulating the attention systems in the brains of players for years now.
There are signs that, as technology progresses, this type of theme music is being abandoned, with games producers opting for anything from big orchestral pieces to hip-hop. The challenge will be to maintain the delicate balance of stimulation without distraction. To achieve this, games composers will need to stay focused. Which is ironic.
Dean Burnett’s first book, The Idiot Brain, all about the weird and confusing properties of the brain, is available now in the UK and the US.