Does listening to music help you work… or just distract you?
My eldest son is on the autism spectrum – he’s high functioning, but sometimes he needs ways to block out some of the noise going around him at school.
When he does written work, they give him headphones that play classical music. It helps him immensely.
Well, it actually got me thinking – because do all my work either from home, or in a coffee shop, or in the library!
Sometimes I have the TV on in the background, but I often find that too distracting. So, I turn it off.
But then it can all be… oh… so … silent.
Then one day, I started to look through YouTube for film theme music.
Mainly compilations that people had done for their favourite ever film soundtracks and so on…
When I was a kid, I would love to listen to movie soundtracks.
As an adult, I haven’t done that much and I thought I’d give it a go.
I actually thought I’d find it too distracting and that I’d be unable to work; but quite the opposite happened!
Not only did I feel significantly happier and inspired; I also found it much easier to write. Everything just started to flow.
Rather than not having ideas, I got more.
I did feel influenced by the music, but not in a way that overtook any natural thoughts.
It’s almost like the music was giving my brain a bit of a massage and enabling it to work more effectively.
I thought back to my college days and school days – where I found studying incredibly hard to focus on.
As a result, I always studied at the last minute.
Homework would be completed the day before.
Where there was a test, I’d wait until the latest possible opportunity.
Luckily for me, I still did well.
Partially because, I had the ability to memorise large chunks of texts, (such as my essays) as long as I would look at them the night before an exam.
Consequently, I would have quite extensive answers pretty much ready to go.
While I couldn’t guarantee that certain questions would come up, there was a high liklihood that something very similar would.
It didn’t help in the long-term though, because all the information was only in my short-term memory.
Not long after I completed my degree in Philosophy, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about it at all.
Probably one of my biggest achievements is getting a high first in Metaphysics.
I still like to mention it ocasionally because…. It is literally quite laughable to me now, to even imagine how that could be possible!!
In any case; I was wondering how much better I could have been at studying, if only I’d known that listening to music could have helped me.
It not only makes it easier, but it also makes it more enjoyable when you’re listening to inspiring music while you work.
I’m not sure if a particular style of music is necessary in order for it to help. In my case, all of the music is instrumental and quite motivating.
As you can imagine many film soundtracks to be!
Although, the other day I was listening to the Game Of Thrones compilation and some of that music is soul destroying, it is so meloncholy.
But somehow, it makes you feel a happy-sort-of-sad?
So, why would music help us to concentrate?
One argument seems to be based on attention. The idea is that we have two levels of attention, both conscious and unconscious.
The conscious attention is focused on what we need to do right now and the unconscious a sort of sensual side that will pick up on any sensory information that could be significant. (source – the guardian)
Just because we’re trying to consciously focus on a task at hand, that sensory unconscious attention is still active.
If the task at hand is quite dull and repetitive to us, our unconscious attention will keep drawing us away to other things…
Like the repetitive noise of a ticking clock, a distant car alarm ringing in the distance, perhaps someone having a slightly too-loud conversation on the table next to you.
It’s easy to see how some environments can be difficult to work in.
Take my son at school: people with autism can over have heightened senses and the sensory world can seem even more strong and distracting than it can be for a regular person.
This can make things like certain noises, light and smells overbearing.
But certain sensory distractions, like calming music, seem to be able to satisy that part of the brain and allow the other side to continue to focus on the task at hand.
I like to think of it like two different minds, each with different motivations but that can work together in unison in the correct environment.
Is The Type Of Music Important?
This is where it seems to come down to personal preference.
While it seems there are certain types of music that work better than others.
For example; music with lyrics are thought to be too distracting and I would completely agree from my own perspective.
It’s too easy for the conscious part of your attention to switch to the song and take you completely of course.
It’s often argued that some sort of ambient noise is good, or certain background noise.
For example; I used to have an app that played the sounds of a coffee shop in the background and I quite liked that.
By contrast, the sounds of whales, or the sound of waves crashing against the sand just made me want to fall asleep! For me music that is TOO relaxing does not work.
Yet, if I search YouTube for “study music…” there seems to be an abundance of tracks like this:
That just won’t work for me! It’s too relaxing, it makes me feel more like going into a trance than writing several thousand words.
For me personally, it’s classical or theme music that works. The video below is one I’ve worked from and there are many others like it:
Movie soundtracks for me, tend to have just the right balance between being motivational, inspiring and calming at the same time.
I grew up listening to various sountracks and film music as a child, because this was something my dad likes. So, maybe that has just stuck with me.
Does listening to music help YOU work? I think the answer for me, is a definite yes. But only if it’s of a particular type that’s personal to me.
What works for me, may not work for you and vice versa.
I guess, just try something that seems like it could work for you and check out your results.
All the best,