Many people like to have music playing in the background as they are driving, studying, exercising, or working. Some feel that music enables them to focus more. In fact, many individuals insist that they are more distracted if they do not have music playing. This seems rather paradoxical, to be honest. How can someone focus on the task at hand and the music simultaneously?

Music and the Brain

We know that our brains respond deeply to music. It activates both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, optimizing learning and improving memory. The brain seems to prefer a certain range of musical attributes. Research indicates that a moderate level of syncopation produces pleasure and body movement. In layman’s terms, people tend to respond to music that is hip enough to dance to without being too catchy.

Simple repetitive beats such as those of a timer have low syncopation and no dance appeal. On the opposite end of the spectrum, rhythms like those of free jazz have high syncopation which can be hard for many people to catch and move with. The brain gravitates toward funk music and modern pop — styles that fall between predictable and chaotic. Lyrics add another whole dimension of effect as our brains receive strong stimulation from human speech and vocalization.

Attention, Attention

How can music grab our attention yet allow us to focus on something else? Apparently, we possess two attention systems. Our conscious system allows us to delve into what we want to focus on, and our unconscious system picks up on whatever our peripheral senses deem to be important. This unconscious one relates more to emotions than to intellectual reasoning and operates more simply and quickly.

We often face challenges with attention because our unconscious system is always running. If we are having trouble staying focused on our task at hand because it is boring or stressful, our unconscious system runs on high alert. So a distraction will not have to be as strong to pull you away from your work.

Music can be an effective tool to help us keep our attention centered where it needs to be. It is a source of non-invasive sounds that induces pleasurable emotions, and it can engage the unconscious attention system. We can use music like a parent gives a child a treat to keep the child occupied while the parent works.

What Type of Music Is Best?

Just any type of music will not create the same focus-enhancing effect. Although pink noise has been used often to help increase concentration in workplaces, the results are mixed. The style of music seems to be quite significant: music you enjoy boosts focus and music you do not like impedes focus. Since musical tastes can vary widely among people, it is understandable that exposing an entire group to one musical style would produce mixed results.

Some people feel that the video game soundtrack is one of the most ideal genres for focus. This is reasonable since video game music is orchestrated to set an immersive environment and support yet not divert attention from a task that calls for constant attention. Video game music composers have been fine-tuning their theme music to be entertaining and pleasant without being distracting. However, games producers have been incorporating a spectrum of styles ranging from King Blitz to Mozart.

Music’s effectiveness on concentration depends on how immersive the task at hand is. Research indicates that music enhances the productivity of repetitive work. Some studies suggest that the increased performance results from the elevated mood that music induces. We have mounting evidence that music does not automatically distract but can positively impact our focus.