Hacking Our Brains With Music

In our modern, always-connected society we are inundated with ways in which we can improve ourselves. Yoga, meditation, detoxing, life hacks, Pilates, a vegan diet, Keto, reading a book every week, donating money and travelling are all touted as ways in which we can become better versions of ourselves. Yet, despite continuing to fall for the well-rehearsed sales pitches and jumping on the latest bandwagon to metaphorically come rolling through town, we seem to struggle to achieve and maintain the results we are looking for.

Yet, one tool for self-improvement has been around for about as long as humans. It doesn’t require you to cut out carbohydrates or dedicate 30 minutes of your day to sitting in a dark room whilst you reflect on your day. This tool can make you more productive, alter your mood, help you concentrate and even improve your ability to learn things. What is this tool? It’s music. 

Improve Concentration

For many, music is just a form of art that we use to relax and unwind. However, research has shown that certain types of music can be used to improve concentration. This is particularly important for anyone trying to focus their attention on a challenging task, such as studying for a big test, or when sifting through lots of documents whilst conducting research. Researchers have found that several types of music can be listened to improve concentration, namely: classical, “nature music” (crashing waves, whale songs, etc), cinematic and video game music, and any music between 50 and 80 bpm.

Using music to aid with concentration is common in the sport too. Formula One drivers are regularly spotted wearing earphones before the start of a race, as they use the music to get “into the zone” – drowning out much of the organised chaos that goes on around them as the global media outlets circle and their teams prepare their cars.

A similar approach is taken by poker players, who use music to help them concentrate. Martin Harris described “poker music” as down to the personal preference of the players, stating that some prefer slower-paced, calming songs, whilst others like to listen to more upbeat pop and hip-hop songs.

Photo by Siddharth Bhogra, License

Improve Productivity

During the early years of the industrial revolution, business people and academics had been looking to find ways to increase the productivity and the output of factory workers. This led to a range of bizarre experiments, including one that seemingly sought to compare humans to plants by seeing whether their productivity levels changed in different light conditions. Although clearly there is no “optimal light level” for boosting the amount of work a human can do, other research did find that music could help make people work faster. 

In some cultures, whistling is considered bad luck, but in large parts of the western world whistling whilst at work was common amongst professions like postmen and milkmen, since they would be out working alone. The whistling would help them to pass the time faster, provide them with a boost in productivity. The modern equivalent to this would be listening to music through headphones, which you can see regularly amongst people who work as delivery drivers and in other outdoor jobs.

Music can also help factory workers, with higher tempo songs being played on the factory floors to help boost productivity. During the 20th century, the BBC even ran a radio programme called “Music While You Work”, which provided productivity-boosting music to the whole of the UK. Modern office workers may struggle with the office politics of having a radio, but many are allowed to use headphones if it helps them work more productively. 

Music for Learning

Music has been used to pass down stories from generation to generation. For example, the traditional rhyme, “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” was used to tell the story of the Great Plague of London, with the musical element making it easier to remember. This same concept can be applied to learning; it is common for people who are learning languages to use music as a way to immerse themselves in the language and culture they are studying. 

Music can help with learning in several ways. Firstly, the music itself can be used to help memorisation. One example of this is the alphabet song, which just about every person has used to remember the order of its letters. Adults continue to use the song throughout their lives, demonstrating its effectiveness. Secondly, research has proven that listening to classical music whilst learning a subject can help your brain to remember the information you are being taught. 

Music can be used to hack our brains to achieve more than would be possible without them. It can help us to concentrate, be more productive and to help us learn subjects more effectively. What’s more, listening to music is enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a chore, making it much easier than pilates or meditating.