We have special kinds of music for whenever we want to feel motivated: sports, driving in the car, clubs, parties, pre-parties. So what about studying? I’ll start by discussing the neuroscience of good study music. You can scroll down and jump straight to the review of Focus at Will (the dedicated focus music streaming service) or check out my favorite Spotify and Pandora playlists for focus.
What Makes Good Study Music?
Can music actually help to “put you in the zone” or create flow?
Science seems to be saying “yes.” The best study music does more than just remove distractions from the surrounding environment. It actually taps into something primal that makes us feel energized. Listening to music is deeply connected to how we perceive time. When we listen, our brains are constantly predicting what is next. The “groove” we feel is the brain responding to this. As long as this “mental background process” is running, it subconsciously trains us to stay on track (aka, keeping focused). However, there’s one thing that can destroy all this and make music worthless…
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Whenever your brain is surprised, it stops and pays attention. Shiny objects cause distractions because they were unexpected, so we have to turn our attention to the new thing and figure out what it is. A distraction is really a hijacking of our selective attention by something unexpected. The best study music needs to not provide these kinds of distractions. Sudden changes in tempo are one example of how music can be distracting (think of the drop in Electronic Dance Music). Even simply having words which you understand can cause your brain to try to “grab on” to those words and make sense of them. That’s why the best study music tends to be highly instrumental, with few words, and a very consistently evolving melody and rhythm.
Minimizing these so-called “oddball stimuli” is one of the main things good study music must do. The job of the music is to occupy the right parts of your brain, without taking too much attention (due to something called cognitive load theory). Slower music can induce a relaxed state which is apparently conducive to flow, though I have to say that my personal preference is for faster music when working or studying, even if the science suggests that slower music may be better.
Some of the research on study music was done by the team behind FocusAtWill (which I review in the section below). Their whitepaper explains the research they did on improving studying with music. While I think the findings of their research are valuable, it’s also important to take them with a grain of salt. Let’s have a look at the pretty graph in the whitepaper:
The authors are asserting that increases in specific brain waves are significant. In their conclusion they state:
The increased mean spectral magnitude, found in the theta and beta brain wave frequency bands when compared with control music presentation indicates greater organized firing of nerve cells. In other words, there is increased neural synchronization associated with the experimental music. This is suggestive of greater focus which occurs when there is such a mobilization of a population of nerve cells for a specific task.
That’s a pretty long winded way of saying “we detected some brain changes with the music, and we think it means people were focusing better.” This is very cool, but again I want to stress that it’s in laboratory conditions. Showing a change in brain waves in a lab is not the same thing as experiencing a subjective increase in the real-world.
So, let’s take a look at “FocusAtWill.”
Focus@Will: a Dedicated Streaming Service
If you want a one-stop solution for study music, check out the free trial of Focus@Will. It’s a streaming music service with a mobile app aimed at people looking to improve their focus. Here’s my review of Focus@Will on YouTube:
What I liked most about the service was that I could simply choose the type of music and it would do the work of keeping the music consistent. All the songs were of the same genre and tempo. There is something lost in the fact that the music is not popular or recognizable, but this makes sense for focus. It’s really fun when a song you know or enjoy comes on, but this can actually be a distraction when you’re trying to focus. I also pointed out that there’s no easy way to control the service, but it’s kind of the point that it’s not easy to pause/resume (aka, be distracted). In the video, I mentioned that the service has productivity tracking, time-boxing, and other nice little bells and whistles:
What I like a lot about this is that it embraces the same research-based principles I talk about on this blog. For example, here’s why shorter study/practice sessions are better than long ones. Recording your progress at the end of each session is an important part of deliberate practice and goal setting.
That said, I find it to be hard to justify spending extra money each month for another streaming music service. I already subscribe to Spotify and Pandora, so why not look there first for music for studying?
Study Music Playlists
You don’t need dedicated software to listen to good study music.
Spotify and Pandora both have an excellent assortment of music for studying in all imaginable genres. The only hard part is finding it. That’s why I created a new resource on this site, called Focus Music Playlists. There are dozens on that page, but here are a couple of my favorites; one classical and low-tempo study music, the other fast and electronic.
Create your Own!
It’s not too hard to create your own study or focus playlist.
Let’s review the key points from the science, above:
- Minimize jarring transitions (try to keep rhythm and melody even)
- No oddball stimuli (it’s best if there aren’t even words to grab on to)
- Slower tempos might help induce flow, while faster seems enjoyable when working
Starting with highly instrumental music is a sure bet (that’s why my playlists tend to focus on classical and electronic genres). The hardest part tends to be making the playlist internally consistent. When you put it on shuffle, does it randomly jump from a fast to a slow song? This can create exactly the sort of “oddball stimuli” we’re trying to avoid. Curating a playlist takes a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun!
If you end up creating your own, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a link in the comments below and I’ll check it out. If you haven’t already signed up for the email list, you’ll receive a lot of practical advice about how to study more effectively: