Being fascinated with and a lover of music; I spent time looking at the science and the most effective creators in the world to see how it could possibly help me focus more and work harder, all whilst maintaining a level of happiness and calm. Here are my findings and if you read this to the end, you’ll discover the optimum playlists tide to specific activities that you want to master, which was my personal goal when researching.
Music rocks our core
I love music. I’ve always been a big fan of how music can dramatically draw out different feelings from people. To witness music at its height and its affect on the human emotions: go watch a live performance by a world-class artist like Stevie Wonder, AC/DC or even Celine Dion. When I saw Stevie Wonder live last year, I saw and felt an emotional love between members of the crowd that I have never really experienced before. The boundaries of class, colour, sex and race were smashed by the pure, shared experience of emotion that swept the crowd like a tidal wave. I’ve always been fascinated by how music can do such a thing to us.
Sh*t, I’ve forgotten my headphones!
This is the worst feeling when you’ve got a long journey ahead of you. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a train or walking a great distance whilst being consumed by the music of our choice – and forgetting your headphones is just the worst when you spent so much time looking forward to this experience. Unlike other forms of media, music does something interesting. It allows the listener to not only be absorbed in something, but allows them to also partake in the real world. When we’re playing a game or watch a film on our phone, we can easily miss our tube stop or forget that we’re sat in the priority seat and there is an old lady embarrassingly looking down on you, hopelessly waiting for someone to free up a seat. (Luckily, this has yet to happen to me… I think.) But with music, your visuals aren’t impaired. Your vision is still consuming the events of the real world around you. This isn’t to say that music doesn’t affect our approach on the real world events though – it can actually affect our mental state of how we see the world.
In Ryan Holiday’s ‘Ego is the Enemy’ (one of my favourite books of all time), Ryan writes how ‘we plug in our headphones and suddenly there’s a soundtrack’ and I think that to this soundtrack we build our point of view. Ryan compares this to an ‘opening credits montage’ and describes how we ‘flip our collar and consider briefly how cool we must look. The crowds part as we pass. We’re fearless warriors, on the way to the top’. Now whilst Ryan does link this to our ego in the stoic philosophical sense; what I have taken from this is that we can use music to control how we feel and how we want to approach certain scenarios.
We’ve all had those moments where we’ve played sad music to make ourselves feel sad. We listen to ‘Bad Day’ by Daniel Powter, rest our head on the train window and stare at the rain drops slowly making their way down the glass. Without the music, our feeling of sadness may not even be that great – but there is something oddly satisfying about listening to music that not only matches our emotions, but also encourage our mood to swing a certain way. This powerful insight into music interested me, and got me thinking about how we could possibly utilise this for our own benefit in being more focused and efficient in work.
The cool science part
I am not a huge fan of silence during activities. I want to be able to listen to music whilst doing work and I want to know what type of music I can listen to help me do that in the best way. To do this, I had to look at the good-old science to help me out.
Listening to music activates a part of your brain called the ‘nucleus accumbens’. This triggers the release of the ‘pleasure chemical’ dopamine, that lives in a group of neurones in your brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). This is commonly associated with dopamine. This is the chemical that is released when we drive fast, eat our favourite food or receive a notification on Facebook – it ultimately leads us to desire an endless amount of it. Dopamine’s varying effects are also in correlation to the element of surprise. For example, listening to a new song that you instantly fall in love with releases more dopamine and gets you more excited than listening to a classic song that you love, but have heard many times.
I love the idea that we can drive our work based on the excitement and rush of hearing a new song that we love, but this can lead to us being unfocused. Too much excitement and dopamine can lead to you lending more of your attention to the music itself rather than your work. This is especially the case if the song has lyrics. (Check out the song ‘Closer’ by The Chainsmokers and watch yourself quickly start singing along or at least lending your attention to it). It’s hard for our minds to drown out lyrics. Words and language is something that our minds are constantly processing and so by listening to songs with lyrics, our mind sub-consciously works hard to process the information being laid out (that’s why people hate the hard to understand ‘mumble-rap’). It’s important to note that lyrics of a language that you do not know is excluded from this as our brains cannot process it like a language we speak. When the right amount of dopamine is released and there are no lyrics, music actually allows us to naturally favour a state known as ‘flow’.
Be formless like water.
The term ‘Flow’ is used to describe a state, that was first coined by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which we are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity we’re good at. During this ‘optimal experience’ we feel ‘strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of our abilities.’ Bruce Lee also describes a similar feeling in which he says that we must ‘be formless, shapeless, like water’. This state of ‘Flow’ is ultimately where we want to be when working and music can help us achieve just that.
Chris Sacca (American venture investor, company advisor, entrepreneur and panelist on the hit show ‘Shark Tank’) stated in an interview that he listens to just one song on repeat and says that he can ‘bang through an amazing amount of email’. This seems to be a common trend for top-class performers who tap into the state of ‘flow’. Jason Silva (Youtube philosopher and filmmaker) claims to listen to ‘Time’ by Hans Zimmer from the Inception soundtrack on repeat whilst doing work. The act of listening to just one song on repeat seems to allow your mind to grasp the ‘flow’ state without encouraging too much dopamine to be released with the element of surprise – whilst also maintaining a healthy amount of excitement to encourage hard work.
Music and learning
One interesting study showed a direct correlation between children who had music training and learnt to play instruments (having more impact with music in their lives) and their brain development and maturity speed. The neuroscientists found the auditory systems of children in the music program, during the 2 year experiment, were maturing faster in them than in the other children. The children with music training also had smaller P1 potential amplitude (a potential comprised of the number of neurones firing and the speed of transmitted signal) compared to the other children, which indicated a faster rate of maturation. This study enabled me the insight to see that I should not just be focusing productivity or work completion rate when listening to music, but the progression of brain development also.
One study I came across showed what happened when workers on an assembly line listened to music. The result was that the workers who listened to music were more happy and efficient and made fewer mistakes. The elimination of error is key as it creates efficiency, making sure that you don’t have to keep editing your work. So for repetitive or somewhat easier tasks, listening to music would be best and the result would simply be the state of happiness and higher productivity levels.
Find more articles on improving your productivity here.
Is your girlfriend/boyfriend a good match for you? Check their Spotify.
Now this is a really interesting study! This had couples looking at each other’s pick for top 10 favourite songs and it actually gave some fairly reliable predictions as to each other’s personality traits. The study was conducted and presented by Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2006)
The study focused on five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability.
This was what they discovered:
- Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
- Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
- Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease
- Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
- Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
- Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
- Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
- Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
- Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
- Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
- Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
- Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
- Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease
Now this study was executed with younger adults and so the results may not correlate with those who are over 30 and more defined in their music preferences. But there seems to be an interesting relation to the article about introverts and extroverts found here.
Well I’ve discovered a various things about how music affects and/or defines:
- Our mental perception on real world occurrences
- Dopamine and excitement levels
- The beautiful state of ‘flow’
- Brain development
- Productivity with easier tasks
- Your personality traits
From these findings I was able to comprise the ultimate, badass playlist for getting things done in certain situations.
As your reward for reading this to the end – here are the ultimate playlists! 🎧