Elton John got it right when he sang "Sad songs say so much." But what he forgot to mention was that sad songs--and all songs, really--have the power to trigger strong emotions and transform how you view your relationships.
In his book "The Sonic Boom," award-winning composer and TV producer Joel Beckerman examines the phenomenon by looking at the research Aniruddh Patel, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, presentated with the World Science Festival and the New York Philharmonic. By taking film clips and substituting the score of another in a series of studies, Patel found music didn't just intensify a mood, it completely changed a viewer's perception of the relationships between a film's characters and assumptions about the plot.
As in a film, music can be used to soundtrack your life, leading you to think certain things about your surroundings. For example, Disney uses sound to give theme park visitors the impression of entering new worlds and to create a natural barrier between attractions such as Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland. Music can also lead you to behave in a certain way. The primal drums of Journey's "Eye of the Tiger" might make you feel pumped, while Adele's "Someone Like You" will make you reach for a hanky. Here's how you can use sound to get more focused at work:
Cue the Strings
Beckerman admits there's no science to this, but certain instruments do express certain feelings, and over time you get used to them. Strings can convey warmth, passion, and feeling uplifted, which is partly the reason people suggest classical music for studying. The ebb and flow of the strings isn't just good background music, it can make you more alert and energized.
If you're trying to focus, lay off the Depeche Mode and Madonna. While synthesized instruments sound incredibly modern, writes Beckerman, they can take you out of the moment, making you think too far ahead. They're also too futuristic. Likewise, electric guitar, which cues images of youthful rebellion and energy, may distract you from the task at hand. Instead, opt for music that's made with real instruments or electronica on the ambient side.
Coffee houses were practically built on folk music, which is why people associate them with each other. If you're trying to concentrate take a page from their book and slow the tempo down. You'll take more time to think things through and won't feel as rushed. The task will feel meaningful, your space more inviting, and the soft sounds will put you at ease. Soul, jazz, and indie rock are all great for this, as are singers with low, smoky voices (think Nina Simone).
Don't Tune Out Everything
Too much silence may make you uneasy, warns Beckerman, noting sounds help orient people to their surroundings. The human ear isn't equipped with a lid, so true silence doesn't exist. "No matter where you are, no matter how quiet you think that place is, when you sit in it for a while, you'll start to hear this symphony," he jokes.