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Want to Be More Productive? Listen to This Kind of Music


We listen to music to help us get things done. That's part of how we live! But you're probably listening to music you really enjoy, or rather, music that actually hurts your productivity.

Everything you listen to has to be processed by your brain. Coworkers talking, birds chirping, drums beating, neighbors shouting, vocalists singing, dogs barking, guitarists strumming - all of it.

But what's fascinating is how much you can manipulate your overall productivity by what sounds you listen to. Let's break it down.

If you listen to a song, your brain doesn't process it as one item. Your brain processes it as a complex combination of layers.

For instance, one acoustic guitar being strummed is far less to process than a pop song with several vocal layers, bass, melody, rhythm, snare, high hat, synth, etc. But by listening to the correct amount of layers and other complexities, you can manipulate your productivity.

Tempo plays a huge roll. If you listen to a 3-minute song played at 90 beats per minute (BPM), you're not having to process nearly as many notes as if you were, say, listening to a 3-minute song played at 140 BPM.

You're listening for the same amount of time, but there's a lot more notes packed into one than the other. More notes means more processing.

Tone (timbre) plays a part as well, during my research I couldn't find anything remotely conclusive as to why. But tones like heavy distortion, for one reason or another, take more processing power than tones such as those from brass instruments.

Language is possibly the largest factor. Your brain will always work extra hard to process language, even if it's not in your native tongue. That's why people talking behind you while you're trying to work are the absolute worst. Now let's throw all of these things together and see what music you should be listening to if you actually want to be more productive.

Effectively, there are two approaches to take: one for when you're working primarily with words, and one for when you're working primarily with numbers. Another way to break it up would be to say one is right for creative tasks, and the other is for busy work.

No matter what language, if the music you're listening to has words in it, your brain's going to process those words.

This takes cognitive functioning away from your task, particularly if what you're doing relies on you using, learning, arranging, or creating words and sentences. This probably applies to most of what you do everyday. Step one, then, is choosing instrumental music. Now let's look at tempo.

If your brain has zero outside stimulation, it begins to relax. But if you provide just a little bit of stimulation, it sort of kickstarts your cognitive functions. Think of sound like a shot of espresso. If none puts you to sleep, and too much overpowers you, where exactly is the balance?

Anything over 110 BPM is going to provide too much stimulation. Your cognitive abilities are going to falter, thereby hurting your productivity. I don't know that there's necessarily a "note threshold" to avoid, but the research shows significantly diminished performance after the 110 BPM mark.

In my day-to-day, I've found that music between 80-90something BPM is prime real estate for boosting productivity. But you have to make sure you're not still giving your brain too much to process.

For example, classical music is generally a poor choice (no, the Mozart Effect isn't real). Surprising? Think about it.

How many instruments and layers go into an orchestra? Do you really want to dissect all of that while you're trying to create and edit?

You also have to think about music composition (keys, progressions, key changes, augmentations, rhythms, and all that other band camp nonsense), which is generally more complex in classical.

You need just a bit of sound to stimulate your mind enough to get your neurons firing a little faster. You don't want to overpower it.

I've found ambiance-esque music to provide the best combination of all these facets. Artists like Explosions in the Sky, The Album Leaf, The American Dollar, and even Sigur Ros are great choices. I'd recommend choosing one of their Pandora  or Spotify radio stations.

Now for the second approach! If you're doing busy work, data processing, or anything that doesn't take much thinking power, you really need the opposite of what was described above. Words can still be a hindrance, but if you're dealing with numbers it's not as bad, because you're working separate parts of the brain.

Since busy work is so understimulating (boring) by nature, you typically need more outside stimulation to keep you productive. Effectively, any 140 BPM electronic dance music (EDM), trap, hip-hop, or metal songs work great for busy work. They get you going!

Music (and sound in general) has one of the most powerful effects on how we think, behave, and work everyday. If you're listening to the wrong stuff, you'll struggle. But if you're listening to music optimized for the task at hand, as Dr. Seuss would say, "Oh, the places you'll go!"