The Perfect Productivity Playlist, According to Brain Science

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

Kate Morgan
Forge
Published in
4 min readNov 1, 2019

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A man works on his laptop while listening to music.
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

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Kate Morgan
Forge
Writer for

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.