Brain hacks to boost productivity with music. Should you be listening to more ABBA?


We spoke with a neuroscientist and other academics to understand the principles and neurochemistry to help craft a personal productivity playlist.

Image: iStock/kerkez

The manipulated audible sheets of airwaves we call music can have profound impacts on human behavior. Studies have shown that the tempo of the music played in stores can affect the amount of time shoppers spend inside. Similarly, additional work suggests that certain modes could also boost retail sales. Other studies have shown that music can increase cognitive function including memory.

To understand whether it was possible to use this premise to craft a playlist for productivity purposes, to in essence hack the neurochemistry of our brains for a given task, we spoke with a neuroscientist and other academics. It turns out that the notion is theoretically possible and the ideal playlist may need a healthy dose of ABBA and less Wagner.

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“The effects of music to introduce stimulation that will increase focus is not generic. Meaning that a playlist to create focus would need to be tailored to the person. Of course, background calming music that lets the mind focus is a good place to start. However, what could be calming to one person could be irritating to another,” said Paula E. Bobrowski, a professor of health administration at Auburn University, via email.

Bobrowski, who holds a doctorate in marketing and international technology management, emphasized that there is no standard formula for this productivity hack and that it’s best for individuals to first consider the principles promoting focus and relaxation. To do so, a crash course in neurology and the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine is a helpful starting point.

Kiminobu Sugaya, a professor of medicine and head of neuroscience at the University of Central Florida, explained that certain types of music can increase dopamine levels in the brain to enhance productivity. However, there are myriad factors at play and the optimal mixtape will entail careful attention to rhythm, beat, preference, lyrics, and more.

For those seeking a productivity boost from their playlist, Sugaya advised against listening to music with lyrics, explaining that lyrical music activates the language center and this could have productivity drawbacks.

“When you think about something, you’re using your language. If the language center is occupied by the background music with lyrics, then your productivity should be reduced,” Sugaya said.

Interestingly, some types of instrumentals may also reduce productivity with similar stimulation. For example, certain types of instrumental music, namely highly complex orchestral arrangements, may require the language centers to analyze them and limit the productivity of certain people, according to Sugaya.

Finding the ideal balance of complexity and productivity can be challenging. Citing studies surrounding the Mozart effect, Sugaya said that playing students Wagner recordings did not produce much of an increase in brainpower, however, Mozart arrangements, especially more complex two-piano concertos led to a 50% increase in frontal lobe function.

“That means that some complexity is necessary,” Sugaya said.

Rhythm is another input to consider and it’s important to focus on the rhythmic baseline and beats-per-minute (bpm) first and foremost. Deviating from this base level bpm could increase or decrease productivity.

“If you use the 60, 70 [bpm] such as lullaby, which is comfortable for babies because of mimicking their mother’s heart beat, your brain is resting. Your brain gets more alpha wave, the easy waves, but you don’t get much faster or gain the more productive brainwave. So then definitely, you want to have the higher beat, but, of course, not too high, but the higher beat is necessary,” Sugaya said.

The bass of a track and a sense of personal empowerment may play a role in perception and productivity. We also spoke with Professor Derek Rucker at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In a recent study, Rucker and colleagues sought to better understand whether music could cause individuals to feel more or less empowered.

“The short answer is, indeed it can. The paper has specifics, but in brief we found that certain types of music, certain songs can imbue some people with a greater sense of power,” Rucker said.

But what does power have to do with productivity?

Rucker explained that previous work by researchers Pamela Smith, Nils Jostmann, and Adam Galinsky showed that executive cognitive functioning was negatively impacted in lower power states.

“If you want to maintain executive functioning, being in a state of power can facilitate that,” Rucker said.

In a study by Rucker and colleagues, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” caused people to feel empowered, whereas Fat Boy Slim’s “Because We Can” did not cause individuals to feel as powerful.

When asked for his personal pick for his own productivity purposes, Rucker said Alkaline Trio and Chvrches were his go-to’s.

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While rhythm, bass, and lyrics are certainly factors to bear in mind, preference and musical taste will also affect one’s response to a track. Sugaya posed a rhetorical question to make this point. 

“[Do] you know the difference between the noise and the music?” Sugaya asked.

After all, what sounds like music to one person may sound like noise to someone else.

“For me, rap music, that’s definitely noise. My brain [tries] to ignore it as a noise,” Sugaya said.

These proclivities may vary generationally and differ markedly from individual to individual. For example, a study found that people no longer follow the latest popular music by the time they’ve reached their early 30s. As a result, the en vogue musical styles of an era could impact musical preference and, in turn, response.

While tailoring a playlist based on rhythm, bass, a lack of lyrics may be a good idea, if a person simply does not like a particular song or genre, inserting such a track on a productivity playlist could have a largely negative impact.

“I grew up with disco music. That’s one factor,” Sugaya said.

Sugaya explained that disco music, with an emphasis on rhythm, helps him stimulate dopamine and also increase his emotional arousal. However, personal preference should be the overriding factor in the end.

“Of course, the most important part is [to] use your favorite [music]. If somebody likes rap, that’s fine, but, in general, those rhythmical, constant rhythm, that’s a nice way to stimulate,” Sugaya said.

When pressed to name a specific track or artist for productivity purposes, Sugaya stayed true to his stated disco preference.

“Anything like ABBA.”

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