When you're five hours deep in a work or studying session, it might feel like the only thing keeping you going is the Lemonade album you have on repeat in the background. But does music help you focus as much as you think it does, or is it just making you incrementally more distracted? Plenty of us listen to music while we're working; some do so sheerly out of pleasure, but others have music on in the background because they truly believe it helps them focus and get things done. But before you plug in your longest Spotify playlist and hit play, you might want to have a better understanding of how music actually affects your focus — or better yet, if there are certain genres you should stick to when it comes to boosting your productivity.
First of all, some good news: Certain types of music can help your productivity, and can even trigger different parts of your brain to light up so that your work ethic is more effective, so to speak. According to a 2017 blog post on Northcentral University's website, music itself — just the notes, not including lyrics — can cause both the left and right sides of your brain to light up simultaneously, which "can maximize learning and improve memory," according to Dr. Masha Godkin, a professor in the university's Department of Marriage and Family Sciences.
Music can actually help you learn faster — but only if you're listening to wordless music, like the classical genre.
Otherwise, you might end up getting distracted by the words and not memorizing or retaining any of the information you're trying to digest, according to Northcentral University. If you're not into classical music, though, you could always go for electronic dance music (EDM), because yeah, surprisingly enough, Northcentral University noted that this could be just as effective as classical music, since it doesn't have any lyrics to distract your thought process.
Some other suggestions from Northcentral University include the volume and tempo of your jams: Keeping the volume lower is important (so you you're not drowning out your own thoughts while you work), and having a tempo of 60 to 70 beats per minute might help you focus for longer periods of time, as well as help you retain more information along the way.
Now, it's pretty cool to think that something like EDM could legitimately help you get your work done. It's good to know your old frat-party anthems will serve you well in the real world, but it's kind of a bummer that any music with lyrics is apparently a no-go for helping you focus.
So what is it about music with words that gets in the way of your productivity?
Basically, it comes down to this: You have two attention systems running at all times in your body, according to The Guardian. One of these systems relates to your conscious thoughts, which "enables us to direct our focus towards things we know we want to concentrate on," while the other one regulates your unconscious thoughts, and "shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant." When you're focusing on something, your conscious attention may be focused on the task at hand, but your unconscious attention is keeping an eye (and an ear) out for any sounds or sights that might warrant attention.
When you listen to music with lyrics, or even music that's otherwise too loud or distracting, it starts to serve as a distraction for your conscious attention. Listening to lyrical music while writing or reading is basically a form of multi-tasking, which has been shown again and again to just plain not work.
In contrast, listening to music without words won't interrupt your focus, an it has an added bonus of drowning out other small noises that might interrupt you otherwise, like the constant sneezing of your allergy-prone co-worker, for example.
The rule of thumb for focus-oriented music is simple, and unfortunately Beyoncé-averse: keep it wordless, and keep the volume reasonable.
There's one pretty big caveat to all of this, though: Your ability to focus with music on in the background is totally dependent on the task you're trying to accomplish. More specifically, according to a 2014 report published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, lyrical music will only distract you if the task that you're trying to accomplish involves words.
However, a task that requires creativity (without involving any reading or writer) could benefit from any and all genres of music, according to The Conversation — which is why you might love listening to Chance The Rapper while you focus on the graphic design aspects of a slideshow you're creating, but you'd rather put on some Zedd when you're trying to figure out the bullet points to include in your next slide.
Musical taste and study preferences are, of course, totally dependent on the person. What's really important here is paying attention to how efficiently you're working, and trying to adjust your circumstances to improve that efficiency in the long-term. Maybe the Lemonade album can wait, at least for a few hours.