How to make the perfect playlist to boost concentration, according to science

It’s no secret that music can hugely impact our mood, and science tells us it can also influence our concentration. If you’re in a productivity rut, we’ve asked music experts how to create the ultimate concentration-boosting playlist to get your brain moving again. 

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Playlists have long played a role in punctuating our deepest emotions. From screaming Cher joyfully into our hairbrushes at pre-drinks to sobbing into our pillows with our go-to break-up album in the background, there isn’t a moment that can’t be soundtracked – and the same is true for productivity.    

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Over the pandemic, many of us have been forced to deal with disruptions to our routines and turbulent work environments, not to mention grappling with the sorry state of the world with little to no fun to bookend the boring bits. It’s hardly surprising, then, that remaining focused has been a slog. However, creating a perfect playlist is a practical solution combining both science and psychology that can shake us out of a productivity dry spell.

The scientific link between music and productivity is not a new phenomenon. In 1993 scientists at the University of California suspected there might be a link between listening to classical music and our ability to perform spatial tasks, later dubbed ‘the Mozart effect.’

More recent research suggests a variety of genres can have a positive effect on humans. A 2019 study took 2,000 workers and found nearly half of them were DJing at their desks. The same study found that these aux cord aficionados had an increased productivity level of 15%. 

We’ve racked the brains of Grace Meadows, music therapist and campaign director at Music For Dementia, and Raffaele Ricci, founder of music meditation app, MEYA, to find out exactly what kind of bops you should be adding to your playlists to create the perfect concentration soundscape.   

Grace Meadows productivity playlist
Grace Meadows is a former musician, music therapist and campaign director at Music For Dementia.

Pick songs you love

Research suggests there is a link between music’s effect on productivity depending on how much you like the music you’re listening to,” explains Grace, who has experience as both a musician and a music therapist. “When we listen to music we enjoy and love, dopamine – the chemical messenger that plays a role in how we think and plan – is released and we feel rewarded,” Grace adds. This means you can still blast club classics, camp bangers or niche SoundCloud remixes, all in the name of motivation.

As with most things, however, moderation is key. Grace emphasises that listening to your all-time favourite tunes also comes with the risk of distraction. “You can enjoy the music you’re listening to too much,” she says. “Some studies have found if [music] is too familiar or lyric-heavy, it can become a distraction, particularly if the work [you’re doing] requires intense focus.” So, add your favourite tunes sparingly.  

Create an atmosphere  

Establishing an atmosphere, or mood, around your working day can put you into a meditative and, subsequently, effective working state. Raffaele’s app MEYA, is designed to do exactly this, helping to ‘switch [the user’s] brain into the right mode for sleeping, chilling, dancing, focusing or whatever else you’re in the mood for’ by bringing the listener into a meditative state by experimenting with different sounds and beats per minute (BPMs).

“The main benefit of listening to music is linked to the power music has to bring us into a [meditative] state and hook the mind […] triggering more creative thinking, which in turn has a massive impact on productivity,” says Raffaele.

Raffaele Ricci is the founder of music meditation app MEYA.

Think about adding low tempo, cinematic tunes to your playlist. Grace also suggests creating an atmosphere with lyricless music, which is best when you’re adapting to new scenarios or tasks as it minimises distraction.

New research from the University of Sussex also suggests that natural sounds – such as rainforest noises or birdsong – can improve focus and concentration by increasing our outward-focused attention, rather than introspective attention such as focusing on anxiety or stress.  

Up the tempo and add lyrics for repetitive tasks

While lyric-heavy tunes can lead to procrastination, Grace suggests they can also provide some much-needed relief when it comes to repetitive tasks. Lyrics and singalong anthems are a great boredom-buster for completing that daunting spreadsheet or expense claim you’ve been shoving to the back of your desk. In fact, you can trick your brain into thinking the monotonous task you’re doing is not mind-numbing by listening to the right music.

Similarly, while Raffaele explains that choosing downtempo tracks can increase self-reflection, changing things up by blasting the volume and ramping up the tempo can be just as helpful. “The tempo of the music can also influence productivity especially when it comes to repetitive tasks,” says Grace. “This can also apply to the volume at which you’re listening to the music too: too loud and you can’t concentrate, too quiet and your brain is trying to listen out for the music rather than concentrating on the task in hand.”  

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Conduct your own personalised music experiment  

Alternating everything from the tempo to the volume of the music you’re listening to can have a positive impact on productivity; however, it’s important to figure out exactly what works for you.

Grace implores people to “conduct your own musical experiment”. She suggests dipping your toe into multiple genres, and making notes of what you’ve listened to when you feel you’ve accomplished the most: “Do you find yourself focusing more with rhythmic and complex music, or do you feel yourself being able to concentrate more when the music is calmer and less structured?” A playlist is something personal, and there is no reason that your one for productivity should be any different.  

Find more expert-led guides and tutorials on The Curiosity Academy Instagram page (@TheCuriosityAcademy). 

Images: Getty, Grace Meadows, Raffaele Ricci