Sometimes, silence isn’t golden—music is. When you need to buckle down and focus on a project for school or work, having the right playlist at hand is exactly what you need.
Update, 3/2/22: Updated ‘Mass Effect’ and ‘Interstellar’ links.
Technically, you can listen to whatever you want if you think it works to your advantage. But studies have shown that music with these features specifically makes a difference.
- No Lyrics: Words distract us and pull our focus away from the task at hand.
- Moderate Style and Tempo: Consistency is key for focus. Having a chaotic playlist with songs of differing styles and speeds interrupts the brain’s ability to focus and throws us off our groove.
- Not Too Loud: When we turn our music up too loud, it makes it extremely difficult for the brain to concentrate (that’s why we study in a library, not at a house party).
- Classical Music: The dulcet tones of composers like J.S. Bach and Frederic Chopin are as beautiful as they are exciting. Classical music is terrific to have playing in the background when you’re working on something brainy, like writing a paper or studying mathematics, and the Baroque era is a great place to start (think Bach and Handel). In fact, classical music is so great for focusing, surgeons often listen to it while they’re working in the operating room.
- EDM: Forget Bach. We’re here for Diplo, Armin van Buuren, and Calvin Harris. With EDM’s fast tempos and consistent dynamics, it’s the ideal go-to when you need to feel energized and focused. Electronic dance music is known for lengthy mixes that blend songs together so the energy and vibes never stop, making it a great choice for repetitive tasks you simply need to keep up the momentum for.
- Video Game Soundtracks: The music you hear in video games has a deeper purpose than to be cute and help set the mood for the world in which you are playing: it helps you concentrate. It keeps you motivated and stimulates your brain without being distracting, so of course, it will have the same effect when you listen to it while working or studying. And video game music has grown from simple 8-bit melodies to sprawling soundscapes, so you’ve got plenty to choose from (like Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Celeste). Game on!
- Epic Cinematic Music: Sometimes, it just feels like you need to escape reality (or visit another one) for a moment before you can clear your head and focus on a task. That’s totally fine. Epic pieces of music (like scores of movies and TV shows) are the perfect cure for such moods. The scores for Interstellar and Game of Thrones, for example, are vast and exciting and do a great job of sweeping you off your feet.
- Lofi Hip Hop: If you want something more low-key, or simply like having calming music on in the background, lofi is perfect. The slower tempos, lack of vocals, and pleasant yet not distracting beats supply a bare yet comforting soundtrack for studying. There are tons of streaming lofi chillhop videos on YouTube you can enjoy with just a click.
- Ambient Sounds: Sometimes neither silence nor music works. In these situations, the sounds of falling rain or a stormy ocean or the background noise of a coffeehouse are a great alternative. It’s just enough noise to help you tune everything else out and concentrate on your work.
- Your Favorite Music: When all else fails, throw on a playlist that’s got all of your favorite tunes. What could be more comforting and exciting than the classic songs you’re already familiar with? Nothing, that’s what.
If you need some next-level music to help you focus, why not turn to science for help? Using a combination of engineering, AI technology, and psychology, these options might suit you better than a random playlist.
Focus@will (starts at $45/year) is designed collaboratively by scientists, musicologists, and producers to give you personalized music that will increase your productivity and focus for up to 100 minutes at a time. Because the human brain, when left to its own devices, has been proven to only focus for 20 minutes at a time, Focus@will can really make the difference for your workweek or student productivity goals.
If you still want to lean on science but don’t care as much about having a personalized music experience, Brain.fm ($6.99/mo) has something special to offer. The music here is composed by AI (and backed by musicians, engineers, and scientists), and designed to stimulate and engage parts of your brain thought to influence focus and productivity. It is in a similar camp of “brain entrainment” with binaural beats and isochronic tones.
Randomly generated music not your thing? Grab your headphones and check out some of the excellent focus playlists we found on Spotify and YouTube. We’ve got recommendations for all types!
Popular streaming music service Spotify offers tons of professionally curated playlists designed to help you study, work, read, and otherwise complete projects. There are plenty of options: Deep Focus, Lo-Fi Beats, Intense Studying, White Noise, Jazz for Study, Nature Sounds, and Binaural Beats Focus among others. And, of course, you can always create your own playlist of music for concentrating and even share it with friends during your next group study sesh.
YouTube is another bastion of music, and has no shortage of live streams and playlists of music designed for studying and focusing. After all, YouTube is where the trend of lofi hip-hop radio streams gained its foothold. There are other options, as well, like Deep Focus Binaural Beats, Alpha Wave Study Music, Calm Piano Music, nature sounds, and Lovecraftian-themed ambient music, for starters. It’s easy to build custom playlists on YouTube and having access to soothing visuals may further improve your focus sessions.