How Focus Music Hacks Your Brain

February 8, 2019

Different types of music affect your brain in different ways. Today, there are scores of playlists designed to feed the growing desire for focus music. What makes good focus music, and is there anything to the hype? Cheddar explains.


MALE_1: When I really need to focus at work,

MALE_1: I turn on this YouTube channel.

MALE_1: The ChilledCow lo-fi hip hop radio live stream.

MALE_1: I love the tactile nostalgic feel of this music,

MALE_1: the intricate jazz chords,

MALE_1: the washed out boom bap drum loops and

MALE_1: this warm vinyl noise that fills everything out.

MALE_1: For me, it's the perfect mixture of

MALE_1: sounds to fade into the background.

MALE_1: But when it comes to focusing different types of

MALE_1: music seemed to work for different types of people.

MALE_1: Some prefer pure white noise or epic movie scores.

MALE_1: And nowadays streaming services are

MALE_1: curating playlists made for focus.

MALE_1: We all know music affects our brains,

MALE_1: but is there something that makes

MALE_1: particular songs better than others for concentration.

MALE_1: Usually, we choose songs based on personal preferences,

MALE_1: but it might not just be about taste.

MALE_1: It might actually be something

MALE_1: inside our music that helps us focus.

MALE_1: Something almost imperceptible, because it's

MALE_1: happening dozens of times per second.

MALE_1: [MUSIC] Music has always

MALE_1: been used as a tool to influence behavior,

MALE_1: for the better part of the 20th century

MALE_1: muzak was piped into stores and factories.

MALE_1: You might know it better as elevator music.

MALE_1: Peddlers of muzak claimed it could improve

MALE_1: customers moods and increase employees productivity.

MALE_1: Muzak supposedly worked by arranging 15 minute blocks of

MALE_1: songs that gradually increased in tempo and energy,

MALE_1: going from something like this

MALE_1: [MUSIC] to something like this [MUSIC].

MALE_1: The goal was what

MALE_1: scientists refer to as brain entertainment.

MALE_1: It's when our brainwaves align with

MALE_1: stimuli in the outside world, like music.

MALE_1: It's what gets you dancing and

MALE_1: how your jogging pace seems

MALE_1: to magically align with your music when you go for a run.

MALE_1: But can we use brain entertainment to help us focus.

MALE_1: That's exactly what Kevin Woods is trying to do.

Kevin Woods: My name's Kevin Woods,

Kevin Woods: I'm director of science at, um,

Kevin Woods: and what I do is data driven

Kevin Woods: sound design to design music,

Kevin Woods: that I'll help you to focus,

Kevin Woods: uh, relax and sleep.

Kevin Woods: The majority of music is made to distract you,

Kevin Woods: and so, that can

Kevin Woods: definitely be a negative when you're working.

Kevin Woods: Main culprits would be things like vocals,

Kevin Woods: lyrics, human voice is an enormous distractor.

Kevin Woods: [MUSIC] Strong melody, expectation and surprise and key,

Kevin Woods: in a strong melody, but those things are distracting.

Kevin Woods: [MUSIC] You really want

Kevin Woods: to minimize what we call salient events,

Kevin Woods: things like snare hits.

Kevin Woods: [MUSIC]

MALE_1: These musical elements are great for dancing or jogging,

MALE_1: but not so much for focus

MALE_1: because they demand your attention.

MALE_1: Good focus music tends to blend

MALE_1: everything together to minimize their effects.

MALE_1: Audio processing techniques like

MALE_1: applying a low pass filter to minimize

MALE_1: salient events and adding

MALE_1: reverb make sounds fade into the background.

MALE_1: Those things can help us pay

MALE_1: less attention to our music but

MALE_1: the thing that helps us focus might be

MALE_1: something called amplitude modulation.

MALE_1: The amplitude of a sound wave determines how loud it is.

MALE_1: When the amplitude is modulated or changed.

MALE_1: We hear this as a change in volume.

MALE_1: Talking like this through a fan is

MALE_1: modulating the sound of my voice.

MALE_1: It's getting louder and softer at

MALE_1: the same rate as the spinning fan blades.

MALE_1: This rate is measured in hertz

MALE_1: or oscillations per second.

MALE_1: Sounds in our music modulate at

MALE_1: all types of different rates from super fast to

MALE_1: super slow and a lot of

MALE_1: these modulations can be

MALE_1: distracting because they sound like.

Kevin Woods: Buzzy, fuzzy, farty sounds.

MALE_1: Your alarm clock and telephone use

MALE_1: these sounds to grab your attention.

MALE_1: But Kevin believes there is a specific range of

MALE_1: modulation rates that act like

MALE_1: the secret sauce of getting our brains to focus.

MALE_1: This modulation spectrum acts like a heat map that

MALE_1: shows modulation rates in a piece of music.

MALE_1: The hotter the area is,

MALE_1: the more frequencies that are modulating at that rate.

MALE_1: Hear that sound that sounds like

MALE_1: a wobbly helicopter taking off,

MALE_1: modulation in this range of frequencies from

MALE_1: about 12-30 hertz are called beta rhythms.

MALE_1: Our brainwaves modulate at

MALE_1: this rate when we're awake and alert.

MALE_1: Beta rhythm brainwaves are linked to problem solving,

MALE_1: decision making, and focus.

MALE_1: When the sounds in our music modulate at this rate,

MALE_1: brain in train man takes over

MALE_1: in our brainwaves modulate at

MALE_1: this rate too making it

MALE_1: easier to concentrate on our work.

MALE_1: A good example of what prominent beta rhythms

MALE_1: can sound like in a piece of

MALE_1: music is this track Intriguing Possibilities

MALE_1: from the movie The Social Network.

MALE_1: [MUSIC] And it's not just beta rhythms,

MALE_1: there's modulation rate that can help with

MALE_1: sleep and relaxation as well.

MALE_1: These secret source beta rhythms can hide

MALE_1: in all different types of places in our music.

MALE_1: But where could they be hiding in lo fi hip hop.

Kevin Woods: One of the characteristics of this lo fi music

Kevin Woods: are these really dense chords.

Kevin Woods: When you have notes that are very close together,

Kevin Woods: the result is amplitude modulation.

Kevin Woods: You see that those dashboards are producing modulation

Kevin Woods: that's very similar to brain sort of secret sauce.

Kevin Woods: You can hear it too when you hear

Kevin Woods: those Dennis jazz chords right you hear that

Kevin Woods: wibbly wobbly in

Kevin Woods: the inter- interaction between the notes.

MALE_1: So, maybe cue up some strong beta rhythms

MALE_1: next time you sit down to

MALE_1: study because music isn't just

MALE_1: about what's happening in your headphones,

MALE_1: it's also about what's happening in between them.