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Sound on, distractions off: How to use music to concentrate

August 22, 2022 - 14 min read

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How does concentration work?

Should you use music to concentrate?

Choosing the right music

If music isn't your thing, try other sounds

Try a mixed approach

Still can't concentrate? Try using music to relax

Music is a great ally, but it's not your only option

"Turn that down! I can't think with that music on."

We’ve all heard this before — maybe when someone around us is driving or studying for a test. But we can learn how to use music to concentrate on our tasks. Some people stand by using music, or any light background noise for that matter, to better concentrate while working. 

And they’re right. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that music engages the areas of the brain required to pay attention. They found that listening to music helps sharpen the brain for sustained attention. 

Even what genre of music we add to our playlists impacts our concentration and memory. We all know that each genre of music has its own vibe and mood, so we need to curate our playlists accordingly, and that's what we're going to help with today. We'll outline how concentration works, how to choose the right songs, and what to do if your Spotify playlist isn't cutting it. 

Put on your headphones, and let's begin.

How does concentration work?

Have you ever stopped to think, "Why do I concentrate better with music?" If we want to learn how to improve focus and concentration, we need to know how it happens in our brains.

Sometimes, mental health issues like attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) can contribute to our lack of focus. Physical health symptoms, like overworking, undersleeping, or burnout, might also interrupt.

We have two different attention systems that help with cognitive function in our brains. One is top-down attention, which is intentional and goal-oriented, and the other is bottom-up attention, driven by external stimuli. With top-down attention, our brains voluntarily pay attention to what we choose to focus on for a sustained period.

But bottom-up attention is involuntary. It’s a distraction that doesn't need to be stimulating to steal our attention. An example of this would be a loud noise that startles you and takes your concentration away from a book you’re reading. You’ll involuntarily begin to focus on the unexpected noise. 

A noticeable factor about our two attention systems is that they're flexible, and our brain can flip between them quickly. Evidence also indicates they work independently, meaning that one system can steal our focus away from the other at any time.

We don’t have any set rules for when we have each type of attention. Instead, we switch between the two daily. But top-down attention takes longer to take control and bottom-up attention steals our concentration faster, which is why a loud noise so easily interrupts your reading. 

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Should you use music to concentrate?

If you ask some people about the benefits of listening to music while trying to concentrate, you could hear mixed reviews. Listening to music to help us concentrate works differently for everyone.

Some people might think it's a remarkable study habit, while others may find it useless because it only distracts them. But branching out and trying new ways of boosting our concentration might help you find a practice that works well.

We've compiled a list of advantages and disadvantages of using music while trying to concentrate for you to review:

Advantages

Disadvantages

Sometimes it isn’t easy to find strategies that work specifically for you. At BetterUp, our coaches will help you create a plan to boost your concentration and find activities to help you best focus.

Choosing the right music

One scroll through Spotify or Apple Music will show you that there seems to be an endless number of playlists to choose from. It’s overwhelming to try to choose from all the different genres of music and find ones that actually help you concentrate.

Although some experts may say that classical music from composers such as Bach or Beethoven is the best genre, it depends on what you're trying to concentrate on. Some people thrive on more upbeat music, while others enjoy slower, softer songs.

Whatever your individual preferences, what matters most is choosing music that helps work out concentration abilities. Playing background music while studying might be more effective for you, or you might benefit from only playing music while you’re doing busy work.  

Here's a rundown of some different types of music and how they can impact your concentration:

Classical music

Of course, we have to start with classical music. The soothing, calm sounds of an orchestra and instrumental music is grounding as you try to focus on your tasks.

Music that doesn't have any lyrics is especially helpful when you’re trying to write or read, so next time you're looking for soft music to have on while trying to concentrate, search up some Vivaldi and enjoy the string instruments.

Jazz music

One thing about jazz music is that it's all about improvisation and going with the flow. You might find its creative flow is infectious. Listening to jazz has been found to boost your creativity levels and keep you on your toes as you hear all the different sounds evolving and changing.

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Video game music

This one can resonate with gamers especially, but anyone can enjoy it. Video game music is supposed to keep you alert. It's also about having fun as you play and enhancing your experience. Listening to this music will also help you feel more motivated and energized.

Electronic music

You usually hear this music at festivals or nightclubs, but the beating percussive sound keeps you moving, and not just in a dancing sense. Electronic dance music (EDM) is great for activities that you want to focus on that require rhythm. Plus, beat drops add hype to continue focusing on your tasks.

If music isn't your thing, try other sounds

We've been talking a lot about the best music to concentrate on, but we also want to stress that it's OK if using music to concentrate isn't everyone’s cup of tea. We’ll try other sounds if it’s not working. As long as it still impacts our senses and limits difficulty concentrating, we can listen to anything. 

To give you a better idea of what we mean by other sounds, here's a list:

  • Nature sounds such as birds chirping or waterfalls
  • Binaural beats are two different sounds played simultaneously
  • The white noise that helps block out other background noise

Try a mixed approach

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Sometimes, music doesn't help improve focus and concentration. Our favorite tunes might disrupt our flow by inspiring us to dance or sing along.

That's why we need to be mindful of what tasks we integrate with music. Studying for an exam requires paramount concentration and focus. We want to absorb knowledge and focus with few-to-no distractions. But tasks like building a birdhouse or watering our gardens don’t need much concentration, so music pairs nicely with them.

If we prefer to do some tasks with music but not others, that's OK. It's another reason why figuring out what benefits us is key. 

Still can't concentrate? Try using music to relax

If we find that music isn't helping us concentrate, we can use it to relax. Throw on some tunes as we try other relaxing activities, like self-care or mindful breathing exercises. It allows us to calm ourselves, especially after we've been stressed.

Many research papers have shown that people use music to help improve their mood. People who listen to music regularly are likelier to feel happy or energized than those who don’t.

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If we're already feeling relaxed, calming music or sounds like waterfalls or birds chirping will only keep us that way. And because music is expressive, sad songs might instill negative emotions. That's why we need to be mindful of how much music we consume with sadder tones to avoid causing an influx of negative emotions.

But this isn't a new concept at all. Music therapy helps people with their self-expression and moods and boosts self-awareness to better understand our feelings. We can play instruments to enjoy music therapy, but simply turning on our favorite playlist does the trick. No musical skills or training is required. 

Music is a great ally, but it's not your only option

Learning how to use music to concentrate on tasks can make a huge difference in our productivity, mood, and enjoyment.

We do need to be mindful of other factors that influence a lack of concentration that music can't fix. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and unhealthy environments impact how well we concentrate. Turning up the volume doesn't eliminate those factors. So although music is a handy strategy, we must understand that it's only one of many ways to help our concentration.

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Here's a list of tips to boost our concentration besides listening to music:

  1. Create a reward for yourself after you've completed your task
  2. Practice efficient time management and organize your schedule
  3. Relieve yourself from stress and ensure your health is taken care of
  4. Take breaks not only when you're tired but also when you want to refocus your mind
  5. Develop a mindset with positive self-talk to help motivate yourself
  6. Fuel yourself with food and drinks that'll sustain your energy

Next time you have the opportunity to plug in your headphones while you have something to work on, feel free to enjoy some jazz or listen to lyric-less classical music to help amplify your concentration.

Concentration isn't a skill we can perfect overnight. At BetterUp, we're all about sustained effort and working hard toward achieving our goals. Our coaches are here to help you create an action plan to follow and achieve your goal of strengthening your concentration — maybe even with your favorite kind of music.

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Published August 22, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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