Some people doubt the intertwined human connection to music, but those people are generally idiots. While music clearly means different things to different people, ignoring that a connection exists is naive. The proper music sets the mood, triggers memories, and can boost your brainpower if managed correctly. Connecting two highly variable concepts like music and learning may seem tricky to connect, but if we break it down it's fairly scientific. The best place to start in this case would be with the toughest aspect to prove, is their a definitive scientific link between music and productivity.
Establishing a Scientific Link Between Your Brain & Music
For me, several often overlooked tangential connections began to hint towards the connection between humans and their music. Drums appearing independently and early in civilizations across the world, might start you down this line of thinking. Especially considering that notoriously left minded military leaders have embraced syncopated marching bands to keep soldiers on task for thousands of years. Slave hymns existed amongst the deep south, the Egyptian pyramids, and at the foot of the wall of China. In the modern era it's worth citing the odd similarity between DJ's commonly whispered Magic 128 BPM and the speed of an elevated human heart rate. Relaxing music also tends to fall just below a resting heart rate. While I personally find these coincidences telling, they certainly aren't scientific in nature. Thankfully this topic has been addressed by Georgi Lozanov's Accelerated Learning Studies, a 2013 study well summarized in this interesting Inquiries Journal article. There's also a slightly lesser known study by Brewer in this Johns Hopkins summation. Personally, my favorite white-paper on the subject is Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition by Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu, and Amar Cheema. Since these studies were somewhat varied you'd need to stretch to find a hard conclusion, but they (and others) clearly correlate "non-distracting" music as a beneficial factor for improved cognitive performance. Additionally, some highly respected studies have found that music can drastically improve creativity (aka "Abstract Processing"). I believe this quality is so commonly known that a simple messaging to an artist friend will reinforce that belief. When you set all the fancy psychoanalytical words aside, these studies state that the proper music can help concentration, cognitive endurance, and allow you to think more creatively. If you're willing to accept this theory, you may already be familiar with the buzzword commonly used to convey it... "Flow". This concept has been highly advocated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is well encapsulated by a simple diagram, the Csikszentmihalyi Flow Model. This is a concept that has been heavily known in the creative community for years, but like many creative theories it took a TED Talk to achieve mass acceptance.
After digesting this info, you may notice the one caveat that underlies it all. There is a significant difference between music and "non-distracting" music. Many people like attention grabbing music, but if we're looking for the best albums to listen to while working this clearly defeats the goal. Luckily a cursory understanding of music theory allows you to decouple the two. This bring us to our next step, what qualitative elements should we be looking for in music for working?
What Elements Should We Look For in Good Working Music?
The Bad: A few genres need to be crossed off immediately... reggae, hip-hop, pop, country, funk, jazz, and rock. While I have an appreciation for all and there are always exceptions, they each have qualities that directly conflict with the ability to concentrate. Lyrics distract. Beat variations distract. Hard beginning and ends distract. Power guitars distract. Many of the things that grab your attention simply refuse to give it back. While the totality of these elements have been a formula for creating pop music the last 20 years, these are the exact elements we need to avoid to ensure deep, prolonged, and creative thinking. So.... Now that we've crossed 90% of all music off the list, let's try to ID qualities and genres that are awesome for working.
"Music is the soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents."Ludwig van Beethoven
The Good: It's classically understood that classical music is optimal for deep thought and while that may be impressive wordplay (self high-five), it's meant to evoke emotion that's too distracting for prolonged work. Classical music slays both firework displays and long terms of deep introspection, but we want to level out that depth and just do work. From what I've found, the key qualities for prolonged work are a stable beat, smooth tonal transitions, and music that's towards the lower end of the wavelength. Now we're getting niche, so what's left? Light Jazz can be great for working and I think Muzack has capitalized on that reality, but let's assume you're not ready to shop retirement homes just yet. Lo-fi and Ambient are practically built for productivity. While there is a bit of variation in these genres, the general concept is - High repetition, a steady bass driven beat, sparing use of vocals, and extended track length. The holy grail of working music are albums constructed to play as a whole - which generally means DJ mixes. We're not talking about heavy drops or Tiesto though, we want steady lounge mixes - niche genres like Mushroom Jazz or Downtempo embody these qualities to perfection.
So we're obviously getting into personal taste here, but I honestly believe many of these suggestions are universal. They're kid friendly, have received a wide span of appreciation from my friends, and are still trendy enough that I'm fairly sure you won't know all of them. With quite a bit of thought, this is my Favorite Albums for Working List... and if you need some background music to thumb through them, I've included a few of their tracks on this SoundCloud playlist.
Favorite Albums for Working List...
There are now entire industries built on the previous theory. One example Brain.fm, offers a streaming service with a homepage quote stating "It feels like your headphones are giving you a mild dose of Ritalin". Spotify and Pandora have ever growing playlists of "Productivity Music" and "Albums to Listen to While Working". Like everything else mainstream, these remove your individual preferences though. It's much better to just realize that you need to reinterpret and contextualize your music for any given situation. This might seem like common sense to some folks, but there's also a kid trying to study to a top-ten hip-hop album right now that just doesn't understand why he can't concentrate like the rest of his class seems to. It just takes a small tweak of perspective and anyone can turn a subtle distraction into a tool that allows you to think more efficiently. Collecting and curating your own deep thought sounds will help you concentrate, focus, and work more effectively - Which is a universally helpful addition to everyone's tool-belt.
I hope you've found my post on Deep Thought Sounds helpful, but if you have any constructive feedback or tips on your own favorite productivity albums feel free to comment below. If you've found this article helpful or know someone that would, share it on your favorite social site and as always - Thanks for stopping by.
Graphic Designer and Web Developer from Raleigh, NC. Classically trained in Applied Economics and currently running the dynamic design firm that bares his name.