The Perfect Productivity Playlist, According to Brain Science

How to pick the right music to boost your focus, motivation, and mood

Photo: Hero Images/Getty

InIn the early 1990s, there was a scientific rumor, loosely based on one study’s findings, that listening to classical music could make people smarter. The idea, dubbed “the Mozart effect,” permeated pop culture and even politics: In 1998, the governor of Georgia allocated $100,000 of the state’s budget to provide parents of newborn babies with classical CDs.

As you might guess, the efficacy of the Mozart effect was overblown: Decades later, researchers have failed to find a legitimate scientific link between greater intelligence and listening to 18th-century composers. The process of trying to find the connection, though, has led to a broader takeaway: Listening to music at certain times really can enhance performance. You’ve probably got a playlist that helps you power through at the gym; why not design one to help you kick ass from 9 to 5? Here’s how to do it.

Start with a banger

In the original “Mozart effect” study, volunteers listened to either 10 minutes of Mozart, relaxation tapes, or silence before completing a list of mental challenges. Of the three groups, the Mozart listeners did the best.

“A lot of researchers spent a lot of time trying to replicate that,” says Leigh VanHandel, an associate professor of music theory and cognition at Michigan State University. What they ultimately found, she says, is that listening to any music — classical, pop, hip-hop — can launch you into a state of mental arousal, increasing blood flow and oxygen to “wake up” the brain. If it’s music you enjoy, you’ll also get a hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Together, these two things create a neurological recipe for success: You’re in a good mood, energized, and primed to get things done.

Here’s the catch: the effect is short-lived. That 10 minutes of rocking out will only buy you about 15 minutes of cognitive turbo-boost. So, kick your playlist off with a pump-up song — something you truly love — and then dive into the most complex or demanding part of your task as soon as it ends.

Shift into tunes you can tune out

After that first motivational song, it’s time to cut the lyrics. “If you’re sending that part of the brain signals it’s trying to process, like lyrics, that’s diverting your attention somewhere else,” VanHandel says. “Music with lyrics is far less effective if you’re trying to concentrate on a cognitively demanding task.” Stick with music you find enjoyable, but instrumental versions will be less distracting, especially if you’re doing anything that involves verbal processing.

Interestingly, jazz music, though typically instrumental, should probably be avoided, too. “There’s some evidence that, because the solos are almost like conversations the musician is having with the listener or the other musicians, it can almost have the same effect as lyrics,” VanHandel says.

Focus on familiarity

If you need to concentrate, or you’re trying to accomplish something creative, your best bet is to load your playlist with instrumental versions of tracks you already know very well. One study used an fMRI to show that familiar music activated the brain’s frontal lobe, which controls motivation and selective attention, and Broca’s area, which handles spoken and written language.

“There are albums I know so well I can actually stop listening,” VanHandel says. “It’s just there, and I don’t have to go, ‘Oh, what is this I’m hearing?’” Novelty can push music to take center stage in your mind. But if you’re trying to concentrate, the music should stay in the background.

Tailor to the task at hand

Generally speaking, the most important thing about your productivity playlist is that you like it. But within that constraint, you could also benefit from tweaking the music to fit what you’re trying to accomplish.

VanHandel notes, “If you’re doing a repetitive task, more complex music can actually help,” by keeping your attention from wandering too far away. “Complicated music gives you something to focus on.” So if what you’re working on requires more focus than creativity, pick songs with a lot of components — a number of instruments playing at once or beats layered on one another — or songs that have changes in sound quality or tempo.

If you really need to do some high-level thinking, though, keep it simple: music that features one or two instruments or a constant, repetitive beat. “If you pair a complex task with music that has a lot of complexity to it,” VanHandel says, “that’s going to be competing with what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Do some experimenting

There’s no magic formula that’s guaranteed to work for everyone. “We can’t say, ‘Ok, listen to something that’s 80 beats per minute, and has a piano and flute,’” VanHandel says.

And there are plenty of other factors that influence how a person responds to a piece of music, from taste to history to personality. For example, “People who identify as extroverts do better with noise and volume than people who identify as introverts,” she says. “An introvert’s playlist is going to look much different than an extrovert’s playlist.”

Building yourself a musical secret weapon might require you to experiment on yourself a little bit. Put on some songs and start tackling your to-do list, adjusting the soundtrack as you go.

“The problem is there’s no real scientific measurement for distraction,” VanHandel says. “But you can count the number of times you have to stop and search your brain for a word, or how many times you start singing along in your head or out loud. This is the scientific wishy-washy part, but it’s just like musical taste: it really is dependent on the individual.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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