Best sounds for work: binaural beats and soundtracks
Author: By Sergio van Pan
If you’ve already tried using music as a productivity booster but it didn’t help, it might be worth trying again. This time, take advantage of the latest studies on sound’s influence on the brain. This is Part I of our Ideal Work Environment guide.
Our brain is not able to concentrate on one task for a long period of time. This is because it is endowed with two simultaneously competing attentional streams.
The first, the dorsal stream, allows us to consciously focus on what we consider important. The second, the ventral stream, works without our conscious input and shifts its focus of attention to any stimulus on its own. Thanks to its influence, you’ll be able to notice potential dangers, even if you are too busy with something else. But this does create two problems.
The unconscious stream is automatic and works faster than the conscious one. This means that you get distracted before you even know why. For example, even if you’re focused on reading this text, the unconscious stream will instantly respond to a notification.
However, the longer you try to concentrate on one task, the fewer other stimuli your brain receives. Due to the lack of signals, the unconscious attention stream switches into a hypersensitive mode. Thus, even if you temporarily turn off notifications, even the weakest stimuli will be enough to distract you. So, if someone nearby sighs or takes a sip of coffee, concentration is lost. Does that sound familiar?
The solution is to give your unconscious attention stream background stimuli, which it can process without distracting your conscious attention stream. Neutral but strong enough stimuli that do not cause fear, excessive emotions, or strong desires would work well here. An excellent solution is background music. The type of background music depends on the task at hand.
The Productivity Playlist
For lots of energy
If the goal is to put yourself in a good mood and increase your energy levels for work, try the ISO method to make a seamless transition. This emotional management technique has been used in music therapy since the late 1940s.
The idea is to gradually bring yourself to the desired emotional state, creating a playlist where the first song matches your current state, while subsequent songs progressively put you in the desired state of mind. If you feel down in the morning, to begin with, turn on something soothing, and only then move on to more motivating tracks.
If your goal is to maximize your concentration, video game soundtracks might be the way to go. They are specially designed to create an immersive environment, they’re a deep dive, drowning out external noise while not distracting you from the task at hand.
Writer Michael Lewis composed a soundtrack of about 20 songs to work on a book. He has three rules:
Select tracks that reflect the emotions you would like to infuse into the project.
Adjust the music volume so that no external sounds like phone calls, conversations, door knocks, or outside noise, are heard.
And most importantly: listen to the same list of songs, over and over again, until you stop no>ticing them, like the ticking of a clock or your own breathing.
Important: What music should not be included in your productivity playlist
Anything without a clear, distinct rhythm
Anything intense, with dramatic transitions
Anything too fast
Any songs that you love or, conversely, songs that you cannot stand: the former will distract you from your work with pleasant emotions, while the latter will distract you with unpleasant ones.
If you are faced with a serious challenge that requires maximum concentration, it’s time to bring out the big guns.
These are sounds that resonate with the electrical activity of the brain and tune it to the desired frequency. Technically, this is how it happens: different frequencies of sound enter each individual earpiece. For example, you hear a melody with a frequency of 255 Hz in the right ear, and 240 Hz in the left. To normalize the frequency difference, the brain creates a third rhythm with a frequency of 15 Hz. This last rhythm is the desired goal of the exercise.
With respect to productivity, we are interested in three frequency bands:
The Theta rhythm
This frequency corresponds to a meditative state and creativity.
The Beta rhythm
This frequency increases attention, mental exertion, and emotional stimulation
The Gamma rhythm
This frequency increases concentration when solving tasks
The optimal timeframe for attaining the desired wavelength is 30 minutes. And the best results are achieved after 15 minutes, and then gradually decline.
You can find binaural beats, here. Ordinary music can also be recoded into binaural format (8D Audio)
There are already many of these playlists on YouTube and Spotify.
White Noise are monotonous sounds with an even distribution of high, medium, and low frequencies, in which all the notes are merged together, making it impossible to discern a distinct rhythm. A waterfall is an example of this.
Due to the wide range of sound frequencies, white noise masks any acoustic stimuli very well. These stimuli are simply ‘drowned out’ in its flow. But White Noise is even more useful for another reason.
Experiments have shown that it improves cognitive performance during long-term routine tasks in people with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. With ADHD, the metabolism of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for motivations, is disrupted, causing problems with concentration. White Noise compensates for motivational weaknesses associated with a lack of dopamine. So, you can try to include these kinds of tracks during long monotonous work to overcome procrastination.