We all know that music has a significant impact on our world. You’re hard-pressed to find anywhere that doesn’t have an overhead soundtrack. We don’t mind the constant loop of music playing wherever we go. Those playlists are usually highly curated to drive us toward a certain experience.
So much research shows us that human beings are wired for music. We need it, and we always have. Every indigenous tribe, no matter where in the world, has a unique style of music that plays a huge cultural role. Our species intuitively knows the importance of music in our world; we use it to grieve and mourn, rejoice and celebrate, connect to something spiritual, relax, laugh, and even promote deep thinking.
Change the Key
One of the most incredible things about music is its ability to change the atmosphere instantly. Years ago, I worked in a chain coffee shop, and I remember one specific shift where everything that could go wrong did. Luckily it was a great crew that day who kept their chin up and did their best to carry on, but the energy of our store was low.
A friend of mine changed the music station to one we almost never played, chock full of our favorite Disney songs. As we, and the customers in our store, began to sing along, the energy transformed only a few songs in. The nostalgia of the playlist brought an air of fun to the store, and once we all got caught up in the power of the music, the day drastically improved!
The music we listen to during our workday can set the tone for the day or to change that tone. But did you know that certain types of music uniquely help your brain? We’re breaking down a few options so that you can add them to your workday playlist.
Binaural Beats is a very cool experience, and to get that whole experience, definitely grab headphones or earbuds.
Without getting too scientific here, anytime something moves, that thing creates energy. Energy can be measured in many ways depending on how it manifests itself. For example, music (sound moving) is measured in hertz. Depending on the amount of hertz a tone creates determines the number of waves that tone makes. Well, it turns out our brains also make waves when it’s working (and it’s always working!). That’s why we say we’re on the same brainwave when our friends have the same idea.
The kind of waves that music creates tap into different regions of our brains and stimulate them. Many people describe these waves’ effects as a “brain tickle,” I prefer the saying, “this makes my brain purr.” Either way, the effect is noticeable almost immediately!
Binaural beats are when one frequency is played in one ear and another is played in the other. What this does is force our brain to find the common denominator between these two frequencies, which is actually what our brains hear. That might sound (ha!) confusing, but I promise it’s incredibly simple, and your noggin’ is going to do that math for you automatically.
Once your brain has found the common frequency, it kicks your brain into a certain pattern of brain waves. There are five brain waves, each with its unique benefits:
Delta Waves (1-4Hz): The lowest frequency wave is great for promoting deep sleep, can relieve pain and help our body heal, has anti-aging effects in that it lowers cortisol (your stress hormone), and is often used in meditation because it’s been found to help us access our unconscious mind!
Theta Waves (4-8Hz): Theta waves are also useful for meditation, though a different sort of meditation. This wave pattern is excellent for deep relaxation and promotes creativity.
Alpha Waves (8-14Hz): If you need to sink into a deep focus and get. stuff. done, get on that Alpha wave train! Alpha waves are so good for focus and productivity because they relax your brain in a way that allows it to focus, which reduces stress, helps promote and maintain positive thinking, increases our ability to learn, and creates that sought-after “flow state.” Flow state is when your brain is so relaxed and able to focus that you can easily engage with whatever project is in front of you through to completion.
Beta Waves (14-30 Hz): Beta waves are a higher frequency, so while it has many of the same benefits as Alpha waves, it brings its one flavor to the table. Beta waves help maintain focus but also promote analytical thinking and problem-solving. These waves allow for a higher level of cognition and stimulate you towards action.
Gamma Waves (30-100 Hz): Gamma Waves build on the benefits of Beta by taking you further into a deep cognitive state, allowing for better memorization, memory recall, and attention to detail. Gamma Waves encourages alternative thinking patterns or “out of the box” thinking, linked to heightened creativity and the ability to solve highly complex problems.
You can head to Youtube or music platforms like Spotify to find playlists built around these binaural beats.
The term “Sonic Hues” might sound like a cooky new-age fad, but a lot of science backs it up! This is a category of sounds that have a color attributed to them. The most famous is “white noise,” but the color spectrum doesn’t end there!
White Noise is something like TV or radio static. It’s a low-frequency buzzing or humming sound that taps into some regions of our brain. White noise is predominantly used to minimize distractions, but significant research shows it’s beneficial for memorization!
Contrast that with something like “Pink Noise,” which is something like a gentle rainfall. As you might guess from that, pink noise is incredibly helpful for improving your sleep quality (so many skip the pink noise in the office!). There’s also “Brown Noise” often compared to the sound of a heavy waterfall. This type of noise is excellent for deep focus. I suggest you hop on youtube or Spotify to check out the entire color spectrum, which includes green, blue, violet, yellow, and grey noise as well. And remember, sometimes the best color for your brain is black noise, aka – silence!
Play with the BPM
BPM stands for Beats Per Minute and is the heartbeat of any song. The BPM of a song can have a dramatic physiological effect on our bodies, which we can use for our benefit! In fact, our heartbeats will actually align with the BPM of the music we’re listening to. If you’ve ever felt randomly stressed out listening to a faster song, that’s probably thanks to the BPM!
But the opposite is also true; some songs can have a near-instant calming effect because of this. Most research points to the optimal BPM for focus being in the 60-80 range, erring towards the lower part of that range. However! Not all bodies and brains are the same! For most neurodivergent (attention deficit or autistic) people, a higher BPM can have the opposite effect it has on a neurotypical person. They may need to aim for the high part of that range or beyond it. Most people who have ADHD find that it is easier for them to stick to a single task through to completion if they’re listening to songs with about 154 BPM. The big key here is to play around with the BPM until you find what works for you for that task at hand!
The Radio of Babble
A mistake we often make when trying to use music to focus is putting on our favorite artist and singing along. As annoying as it might be, that’s actually working against your brain and creating a distraction. It’s essentially the same thing as when you’re kid is trying to tell you a minute-by-minute rundown of a youtube video while you’re trying to work. Yikes…
On the flip side, for some people, having an ambient “conversation” in the background, like the experience of being in a busy coffee shop, can help their brain focus. That conversation essentially becomes white noise. So how do you listen to lyrics and get your brain to focus simultaneously? Do it in a language you don’t speak!
No really! I use this one often when trying to use BPM as my focus tool. As someone who is a big fan of French music from the ’60s, that is usually my go-to, but Youtube is full of playlists of Italian pop, Swedish Folk songs, and German heavy metal, so no matter what you’re into, there’s a foreign language version that’s sure to get your brain moving!
I hope the music we’ve shared so far helps you tap into a new level of focus, but there are so many more ways and types of music that can benefit your workday. For instance, listening to Classical music has been repeatedly proven to enhance focus and cognition from birth onwards. In addition, classical music is a diverse world, and exploring different composers is a great way to focus your brain and learn about those composers and the styles of music they helped make famous.
Movie or Video Game soundtracks are classical adjacent, but often with powerful emotional cues. I tend to lean on these when I’m writing fiction because they are so evocative, and while that emotional state of this music might not help you for every project, these can be used strategically to get your head in the right emotional frame.
A great option if you’re not really into classical music is Lo/Fi. This type of music tends to have a bit more modern lean, taking elements from hip-hop and jazz. It’s excellent for relaxation and creating chill energy that can lead to that elusive flow state!
We hope that this list helps you utilize your work day in a way that works for you. Remember, at the end of the day, no matter what the research shows, you should always listen to something that you enjoy! The world of music is deep and wide, and there is something out there that will help you tap into deeper focus. So have fun, experiment, maybe play around with some combinations of the music we’ve discussed here, and find what works for you. And hint: you’ll probably utilize more than one of these for different jobs! That’s cool! Find what helps you optimize your workload and brings you a lot of joy in the process.