How Music Can Affect Your Brain, Work, & Learning Outcomes

Learn how music and playlists can impact focus, productivity, and learning outcomes when used effectively.

Published on 28 August, 2020

There are thousands of playlists on Spotify, Youtube, and Pandora that were created to help listeners focus and study. There are so many genres that can engage us and have our minds fully attentive to the task at hand. Whether it be through rock, pop, classical, electronic, EDM and sometimes even Gregorian chants! Everyone has a few specific genres that relax them and helps them focus.  

“Music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”    ― Leonard Bernstein

Music is the gateway to the soul. Music is a weapon. Music inspires us. It can change our mood, make us want to dance, give us energy or put us in a relaxed state. It can also greatly improve our attention, creativity, and efficiency when trying to retain information or doing something work-related.

Sometimes a coffee break just doesn’t cut it. Music has been used as a form of therapy for decades, probably centuries before we actually started doing research for it. We really don’t need research to tell us that music can relax us or change our mood, because we feel it!

However, there are quite a few studies that theorize mood directly influences learning. Which makes a lot of sense because the mood we are in can either enhance our learning (if it’s positive) or distract us from paying attention to anything else, especially when we are trying to focus on learning.  

Depending on your musical training and your individual experience with music, how our brain reacts to music varies from person to person. Which means that different genres of music and how people are impacted by them vary from person to person. Our ability to concentrate depends on the music we like and what kind of music calms us, however our familiarity with a song can also cause distractions.

There are many types of music that can distract us from our work.

There are tons of studies that reveal words are distracting, but it isn’t really the sounds of our coworkers nearby that distracts us. Actually, the more intelligible the words are the more we are trying to figure out what the other person is talking about. Meaning you probably should not listen to music with words especially songs that you already know the lyrics to.

Lyrics negatively engage our attention and need to be additionally processed, so our learning and productivity actually decrease when a song has lyrics compared to a song that is just instrumental.

That being said if your work requires you to do a repetitive task than you may want to listen to music that relieves you from the monotony of mundane work and improves your productivity.

Increasing Productivity and Comprehension

Not only is paying attention to lyrics hindering our ability to comprehend things, but studies also show that mood influences our learning.  It’s sometimes hard to determine what kind of music is positive when it doesn’t have lyrics, but a positive mood correlates with better learning outcomes.

Whether or not music affects our mood and the way we learn, there’s, of course, another form of sound or lack thereof, backed up by studies. Complete silence. Many researchers say the best environment for concentration and learning, is complete auditory silence.  But for some, silence just doesn’t cut it.

Positive music can help us get work done and arrange a better learning environment, but it can also provide that extra motivation to increase our focus.

Maybe silence does increase our focus, but music removes the boredom of learning about subjects that we may not be that interested in. Though music may slightly distract you, at least you’re learning and not trying to power through without any source of motivation.   

What About Both?

Depending on the task, and even its level of complexity, there are instances through the day where we impulsively ditch our headphones and are still able to completely focus on our work.

The options between having music and complete silence both have extensive research to back up how they improve our mood and productivity. However, for an individual to really improve their productivity, they should probably alternate between periods of no music and a mix of different kinds of music.

Continually alternating between both allows for a change of pace. You’re probably more likely to get bored by a specific genre, so alternating between silence and music allows for your mind to not grow tired of the preferred genre that you use while studying or working.

The music genres you choose aren’t the only factor that tells us how music affects our brain and learning abilities. Our personality types, age, and even volume level all play a critical role in determining the most efficient we learn and work.  

Keeping your volume at a moderate level can improve your performance, but if the volume is too high it can actually hinder your information processing and harm your creativity.       

The International Journal for Innovation Education and Research claims that the music you should be selecting actually depends on what you’re doing.  For instance, some people find that listening to music they don’t prefer actually makes it easier for them to solve math problems. While listening to music they do prefer helps with reading comprehension.

This study done by Dobbs, Furnham, & McClelland, suggests that introverts are more distracted by pop music, compared to extroverts, when they are trying to retain information.

Even your age plays a part when it comes to retaining information while listening to music. Considering Millennials and Gen Z individuals were exposed to personal music devices and most likely had one, to say that most young people are more likely to be distracted by music is definitely up for debate.

Even though older studies claim that younger people aren’t able to concentrate with background music, the learning and memory of today’s younger generation are so used to music playing around them that they are actually less distracted by it.

Maybe your lack of motivation comes from the music you are choosing.

Everyone always recommends classical music, ambient sounds, instrumental or jazz. You might be bored of these suggestions or just want to try something new.

There are new genres of music that people are using to study/work and retain information, like Vaporwave and Lofi Hip Hop.  

Lofi Hip Hop refers to a genre of music that mashes up traditional hip-hop and jazz elements to create an atmospheric, instrumental soundscape.” While Vaporwave uses nostalgia and dreamlike sounds to create music. Many people have described Lofi Hip Hop as more chill, happy and organic, compared to Vaporwave. However, they both have a similar sort of style to them that is definitely not heard in your usual classical or ambient sounding music.

Not only do people describe Vaporwave and Lofi Hip Hop as genres of music that help them with their study/work, some even claim they open up their minds creatively.

What’s interesting about these new genres of music is that there is no science that theorizes whether or not they help with your learning, studying or if they even keep you focused. But as most of the other studies concluded, it is best to try them out for yourself. Maybe you like the nostalgic feeling of Vaporwave or the chill and uplifting sound of Lofi Hip Hop.

This playlist of lyric-less Lofi Hip Hop and Vaporwave style music may provide the productivity boost you need:

Lofi Hip Hop:

Similar Sounds:
Individual Learning Styles

It used to be common to assert what kind of individual learning style you were, from a visual learner to a kinesthetic one. We are learning more and more about blended learning and how individuals best retain information. Learn how this practice is being debunked.

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