Reasons Why Classical Music Helps You Focus

Byvu lita

Jun 13, 2023

Is there something like classical music that makes focusing a little easier or does it provide a distraction? For many people I know, having music playing in the room or better still, through headphones, helps them concentrate and even study.

Other people, like me, find it impossible to have music playing while I’m working. It draws me into the music and certainly doesn’t bring me a better focus. I may be in the minority, or perhaps it’s the work I’m engaged in. Let’s look into this a bit further.

Why Does Classical Music Help You Focus

At the polar opposite of my opinion, some people claim that the absence of music when trying to focus is a greater distraction. They need music to enable them to concentrate properly and complete a task.

This seems to present a minor dichotomy. How is it better for many people to have a double focus, task and music, rather than just a single one?

The answers are quite complex. A survey from 2020 by Dr Andrew E Budson on the Harvard Health Blog1 analyses the effect of Music on well-being, learning, cognitive function and life quality.

What this analysis includes are claims that are echoed across many other academic sources. Music seems to bring a range of well-being benefits to those who engage with it, either passively as listeners, or as active participants.

Improvements in mental well-being, reduced depression, better cognitive functionality and other recorded plusses.

Music Benefits

Of the findings that emerge from the survey Dr Budson conducted is the strong suggestion that music “activates some of the broadest and most diverse networks of the brain”.

It is this activation caused by the interaction with music that brings numerous benefits to us. Music has the almost unique capacity to trigger emotion, memory, and the brain’s motor system.

These three triggers can also synchronise in the brain and help strengthen neural pathways improving cognitive function. MRI scans have supported this finding with years of amazing images of what is happening in the brain when we listen to music.

This is but the tip of the iceberg, but from this snapshot of the effect of music on the brain we may be edging closer to answering our question.

Dr Masha Godkin, from the Department of Marriage and Family Sciences, National University, San Diego California, USA, suggests that classical music can be the best for concentration and focus as it doesn’t contain lyrics.

Listen to classical music

Whilst this can be true, I imagine she is suggesting avoiding anything with lyric content, Lieder, Opera, Oratorio, Mass or Cantata, in favour of instrumental pieces as the lyrics can produce distraction.

She goes on to state that music directly impacts mood, blood pressure and even heart rate. Interestingly, Dr Godkin singles out Beethoven’s Für Elise as its tempo of around 70 beats per minute assists students in “study longer and retain more information”.

What seems to form a central tenant in the suggestions, observations and studies is that the music you listen to needs to be a certain kind. The tempo should not be too quick as music activates movement in the brain and thereby the body.

Avoiding lyrics may be important too as they could draw attention away from the task and reduce focus. Additionally, classical music much of it contains no lyrics is a good place to start when assembling a study playlist, but perhaps also for its range of timbres and frequencies.

It is also thought that familiar music can promote focus as it sits nicely as background without overstimulating your brain. It could also operate as a blocker for other less desirable intrusions when trying to study.

As an indicator of the power of music, Professor Kiminobu Sugaya University of Central Florida has undertaken some fascinating neurological research on native songbirds. What Sugaya has discovered is that canaries lose the facility to sing when the cells in the brain die in the Autumn.

Thankfully for us and the canaries, these cells regenerate in the spring when the birds re-learn their songs. This points to the possibility that “music may increase neurogenesis in the brain”.

Given the power of music on sufferers of Alzheimer’s or dementia this could bring lasting benefits to many people.

Composer and researcher Dr Jonathan Berger was part of a small team at Stanford University School of Medicine, researching how the brain is affected by music. In particular, the study was directed towards learning how music can activate the brain to pay attention.

The MRI scans on women and men indicated that music engaged areas of the brain that were active in making people pay attention. Using classical symphonic music by late baroque composer William Boyce (1711-1779), subjects were closely monitored.

The scan clearly showed that activity in the brain varied noticeably between movements of the symphony. The researchers suggest that this dynamic change in activity shows the brain’s evolving response to the change from music to passages of silence between movements.

Findings seemed to indicate that the brain begins to adapt to the changes and anticipate what is coming next.

Given the familiar elements of music to most people, this suggests that at a subconscious level at least, we predict what is going to happen in a piece of music we are listening to.

It is already known to us, or its components like rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo or structure, are in-built over the time we’ve been alive and experiencing music.

This points to the possibility that when we have music playing and we are involved in a focused task, familiarity acts as a comforting backdrop against which we can happily work. It brings with it a way of generating a secure mental state that motivates and supports our ability to focus.

Classical music may offer a considerable number of people the opportunity to focus more intensely or study more deeply. For others, slower-tempo popular music can have an equally positive effect.

The trick seems to be to choose music that you instinctively feel will appeal to you without absorbing you to the point you alter focus rather than enhance it. However your playlist evolves the affirmative power of music remains undeniable.

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