Out of all the tools you have at your disposal to kick your brain into high gear (or wind it down), music is by far one of the best. To help you get the most out of your listening time through the work day, I turned to Dan Clark, CEO of Brain.fm, an online company specializing in using AI to compose for the brain's needs, as well as Paul DePasquale, VP of Product Design at Tivoli Audio.
Can music really help you work better?
Based on what we now know from neuroscientific music studies, the answer is yes. Scientists know that music can affect brain waves, for example, and that it's a powerful tool for memory recall. Clark asserts that music can
Block distractions by replacing surprising auditory input with predictable auditory input that you can effectively ignore. Because the brain will focus on what's new and novel, tracks you're already familiar with can help you tune out the more interesting, unexpected sounds around the office. Your brain thus doesn't have to spend as much energy processing all the extra auditory data, so executive function can get a boost.
Increase energy--"Music is known to activate premotor representations in the brain, priming you for action."
Improve mood--"It's hard to work when anxious or sad, and music's big job is to affect our emotions. Using music to relax or cheer up can help productivity. Or if you need to get aggressive, music can do that, too!"
Putting your perfect playlist together
Because everyone has different experiences and musical preferences, and because different playlists can work to achieve different things, there's no "default" when it comes to specific songs to include. That said, there are some guidelines anyone can use to make a playlist that meets specific objectives, according to Clark.
1. "Use track transitions to keep you in the same state, or change your state, either ramping up or slowing down as the song shifts. If you want to go from doing homework to working out an hour from now, use a dramatic track change to snap yourself from one state into another. Drawing your attention to the music can act as an alarm to move to another state."
2. "Make sure to have ups and downs. If you have only high energy music in a playlist, you will get used to it and it will be less effective. The Pomodoro timer is a great example of breaks that can help you to be more effective. The same principle applies with music! [...] Start your tasks off either high energy and go low or reverse. Have periods of relaxation."
3. Avoid cramming the playlist with all your favorites. "When you listen to music you love, you cross the work time and leisure time line, which brings you out of focus. 'Radio Pop', for example, is built to grab your attention--in other words, to be distracting!"
4. Distinguish between tracks you know and tracks that are new. "Familiar music is less distracting but can still deliver an emotional impact to motivate us. [So] if you are using music to focus, you should use it habitually."
5. "Start particular tasks with the same track. Getting into a habit will help you get started."
6. "Use music to enhance rather than fight your natural cycles of energy." For example, if you're revved up in the morning, that's the time for high-energy tracks, whereas if you feel that after-lunch slump, that's the time to play something soothing so you can relax and refresh.
DePasquale asserts that what you should have on a playlist depends on what you're working on.
"If you are trying to bang out a ton of emails or are inputting mundane data into a spreadsheet, you may want something rhythmic and upbeat (techno, dance, house music, etc.), something to keep you driving through a tedious task," DePasquale says. This might be because music can release feel-good neurotransmitters that reduce the stress of the repetitive job. "However, if you are working on a creative project, product design or a sales strategy, you may want to listen to something calming that will help you focus (e.g, jazz, downtempo electronic or acoustic guitar)."
"Calming" is subjective, however. Some people, for example, find the unexpected chords and rhythms of contemporary classical music to be extremely harsh and anxiety-producing, whereas others find it's great for relaxing and being creative because the unpredictability of the music makes it more like free white noise that lets the mind wander.
Importantly, lyrics matter, too. They can interfere with linguistics processing, so if you're working on anything requiring language, go for something that doesn't have words.
The one time you shouldn't use a playlist at all? When you're learning something new. Your brain is more likely to make processing errors as it tries to handle both the music and the new information coming in.
What about the audio equipment itself?
DePasquale and Clark both assert that the volume of your music shouldn't go much above the level of noise around you. This way, your tracks are pleasantly in the background rather than overpowering you to the point of distraction. You also reduce the risk of hearing damage. But whether to use headphones or speakers depends on the situation. Headphones will block outside noise better, and they work great when everyone needs to focus at their own pace. But DePasquale points out that that good Wi-Fi speakers can be just fine when team members want to listen to the same tracks. Multi-room versions also can allow each person to listen to their own music on dedicated speakers.
As a final thought, remember--if your playlist is intended just for you, don't worry about what anyone else is going to think. It doesn't matter if the track is the latest from Beyonce or Adele, the theme to the Andy Griffith Show or a Sousa march. All that matters is that your brain responds to it in the desired way. If it helps you achieve your intended goal, it's worth listening to.