10 Crazy Effects Music Has on Your Brain
Here's how different types of tunes affect your productivity, creativity, spending habits and more.
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If you’re trying to get into the zone while you work, sometimes donning a pair of headphones and pumping your favorite songs is the key to getting things done. You might put on a playlist designed for focus, or you might turn up the volume on your favorite repetitive, instrumental jam and begin cranking away.
Whether your music selection really will help you be more productive is another story, and it varies from person to person, depending on tastes and personality traits. The effects of music on behavior and cognition also have to do with the task at hand. Is it repetitive? Physical? Mindless? Mentally taxing?
To get a sense of how different genres, tempos and styles of music influence us to work harder, think more creatively, make decisions effectively and more, read on for a summary of some of the craziest ways research has shown music manipulates the brain.
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If you want to be more creative, listen to something happy.
Need to brainstorm new ideas or solutions to problems? Try playing some happy tunes. A study published in the journal PLOS One found that doing so boosts “divergent thinking,” as opposed to “convergent thinking.” In other words, it helps you come up with more original, out-of-the-box thoughts and think about the task from different angles.
The researchers determined that the results held true whether or not the participants “liked” the happy music in question. While they didn’t measure whether the happy music made the participants happier or not, there is a connection between positive moods and creativity.
Music can improve your mood, which can make you more decisive.
Music psychology researcher Teresa Lesiuk has done extensive research on how listening to music affects workplace performance. In one study of IT workers, she found that participants completed tasks faster while they listened to music that improved their mood.
Mood boosting music also helps people make decisions less hastily, because negativity and stress close off the brain to considering multiple options.
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Lesiuk allowed participants to pick their own music and didn’t limit their listening time. People with moderate skills had most to gain from this experiment, while experts performed well regardless of music and people with little to no skills had trouble concentrating while music played.
Listening to your favorite songs can boost empathy and self-awareness.
It doesn’t matter, across artists or genres: People respond similarly when listening to their favorite tunes.
Jonathan Burdette, professor of radiology and vice chairman of research at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, conducted fMRI scans on patients while they listened to their favorite music, vs. music they disliked. Regardless of the type of music, Burdette observed stronger “brain connectivity” in participants the more they liked the music that was playing. Specifically, he was looking at a brain circuit associated with “internally focused thought, empathy and self-awareness,” according to Science Daily.
So if you’re working on something that’s personal, requires introspection or involves connecting with others, queue up your faves.
Music can keep you alert while you’re doing routine tasks.
This is why many surgeons listen to music. The more intricate aspects of surgery might require focus and solitude, but during routine aspects, such as drilling into patients’ skulls (sorry about that visual), playing music can keep them engaged.
A widely circulated 1994 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that surgeons performed surgery more quickly and accurately when they got to select their own music to play in the operating room, compared to when someone else chose their music for them or when there was no music playing at all.
Even if you’re not a surgeon, if you do repetitive tasks such as entering information into spreadsheets or other work that doesn’t require deep cognition, music might help make the work more engaging.
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Background music can make it harder to think.
While music can make routine tasks more efficient, it can make cognition-heavy work markedly more difficult to complete.
A 2007 study published in Psychology of Music asked a group of participants, made up of both introverts and extroverts, to complete a variety of cognitive tasks, many involving information recall. They played various sounds and types of music while the participants worked on the tasks and found that overall, people performed best in silence.
Remember these findings before putting on some intense music or posting up in a coffee shop to meet your next deadline. Silence may seem unsettling, but it will help you focus.
Music affects introverts and extroverts differently.
The authors of the 2007 study cited in the previous slide reported that introverts performed worse on cognitive tasks when they were listening to “high-arousal” music and everyday noise, compared to when they were exposed to low-arousal music or working in silence.
An even older study, from 1997, found something similar: Listening to upbeat songs such as “A New Sensation” by INXS made it more difficult for introverts to memorize images and read a passage. As The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan noted in a 2016 article, “extroverts also tend to play background music while they work more than introverts do, so perhaps they’re just more accustomed to it.”
Music makes it harder to remember things.
If you have to recall information on the job, silence is best, according to a 2010 study by researchers from the University of Wales Institute Cardiff.
They tested “serial recall” ability while participants listened to both music they liked and music they disliked, and saw no difference in performance between the two scenarios.
Listening to music between tasks might be the key.
If you can’t live without tunes, you don’t have to resolve yourself to day-long solitude, waiting desperately for your evening commute to blare your favorite tracks.
As cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains, listening to music 10 to 15 minutes before you start working may be the ticket.
Levitin, who is also the author of This is Your Brain on Music, explains that playing a song before you work can prime you for the task at hand by improving your mood (via dopamine and serotonin, the latter of which can boost focus) and relaxing you.
Music in advertising has to strike a balance between information and emotion.
Commercials with music are more effective, according to 2015 Nielsen research. That may seem obvious, given the number of ads with popular songs and jingles, but the findings break down the effects of specific types of music.
Ads have to be memorable to be effective, or get consumers to buy, but the best ones resonate emotionally. Pop songs are good for this, Nielsen found, citing an HP ad that used Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin’” as a successful example. But for “price and promotional-based ads,” which focus on conveying information, generic background music is best, because it’s less likely to distract.
Shoppers spend more when slow songs are playing.
A fast-paced song might make you feel rushed to wrap up your meal at a restaurant or hit the checkout at the supermarket, while a lower-tempo number might subconsciously inspire you to linger -- and spend more, according to studies from the 1980s cited in Psychology Today.
A 2012 study went further, looking at music’s mode (think: major vs. minor key). If music playing in a store is in major key, its tempo does not much affect shoppers’ spending. However, slow, minor-key music was found to influence shoppers to buy far more than fast minor music.
Not that much a music buff? Psychology Today contributor Kimberly Sena Moore provides context: “‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ may be equally effective at influencing your shopping behavior, but ‘What Child is This?’ is WAY more effective than ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.’”