How to Optimize Your Ability to Focus With Sound and Music

What science and experts say is the best music for tuning out the world while working through a pandemic

Photo: Gabriel Chalmeta/500px/Getty Images

Last week, an Eminem YouTube video made me sick.

Not because of anything Eminem did, but rather because the song that streamed when I clicked play is edited into what’s known as “8D audio,” a nonsense term that describes music that’s been modulated to sound as if it’s playing in your shared physical space. Eminem’s voice, for example, was edited to play gradually louder in my left earphone — as if he was approaching me from the left as he raps, before his voice circled around to my right.

8D audio is frequently promoted as great for focus, though the notion that someone would find it easier to concentrate while sitting in the same room as, say, a dubstep artist is beyond me. Research suggests you should dispense with distracting 8D audio and listen to another type of music or sound instead.

You might start with black metal, as my colleague Brian Merchant recommends.

“For thinking work — reading and writing — my preferred mode is absolute silence. But with tiny screaming kids running around during a pandemic, that is rarely possible,” he says. “Black metal is very ambient and weirdly relaxing and is kind of an ideal tenor for pandemic work, to be honest.”

Though I don’t necessarily recommend turning on Bathory while you put together your sales pitch deck or whatever, there’s something to Merchant’s method. It’s called sound masking, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: masking the distracting, possibly unpleasant noises in your environment with other, less disturbing sounds.

Not all sound is created equal, and what works for Merchant or others might not work for you — the intensity of black metal or similar music styles, which can obliterate, rather than mask, background noise is probably not necessary. Still, there’s a basic set of criteria for what works best at covering up auditory background distractions while creating the ideal productivity mood for you, whether that’s motivating (“I need to get through two hours of data entry and I’m set for the day”) or relaxing and restorative (“I’m stressed as hell about this project and need something to bring me back down to earth”).

“Nobody minds the sound of an ocean.”

According to some experts, nature sounds are the very best thing you can listen to while you’re working. “In general, nobody minds the sound of an ocean,” says Jonas Braasch, PhD, an associate professor in the school of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, who studies architectural acoustics and spatial hearing. “I can’t recall anybody saying, ‘I really hate the sound of the ocean or a nice breeze.’ So that seems to be something universal.” He says this innate preference could have an evolutionary component: Because aspects of our natural environment provide for us, we appreciate and feel a connection to its gentler sounds. (This isn’t necessarily true for all nature sounds — though the roar of a lion might be “natural,” it is not exactly a pleasant noise, because it indicates danger.)

One 2013 study found that bird songs in particular help people retain focus and recover from stress. Participants in the study reported feeling calmer and better able to concentrate when listening to a wide variety of bird noises, including the trilling of songbirds, the cooing of wood pigeons, and even the gentle, industrious sound of clucking chickens. The researchers theorized this may have been in part to participants’ nostalgia about certain bird sounds, as they related these sounds back to happy aspects of their childhood or relaxing moments in their lives.

In another study from 2018, researchers wanted to see how different types of sounds affect peoples’ task performance. Participants were asked to do a series of tasks while listening to one of a number of diverse soundscapes: natural sounds, like crashing waves, rainfall, and crickets; and urban noises, such as café sounds or the hum of an air conditioner. Participants listening to the natural sounds had significantly better task performance than those listening to the urban noises.

8D audio, which adds an attention-grabbing, novel spin to sounds you might already be familiar with, can be distracting rather than soothing.

Charlotte Fontaine, a designer based in London, listens to recorded whale sounds while she works. “It’s a very relaxing, natural sound. I go on YouTube and play eight-hour whale sounds and have it on in the background while working,” she says. “I like that there’s no words or tempo, so I can’t get distracted. It’s like silence.” Fontaine started this habit, she says, when working in an office and was looking for a way to tune out the sound of chatting co-workers and other background noise.

Others told me they listen to music-nature sound hybrids. Rebecca Mix, an author based in Michigan, likes to listen to video game soundtracks, including those overlaid with rain and storm sounds. “A big part of it is because there aren’t words in it — I can’t write to anything with words, and Nintendo music tends to be steady — the same few beats repeating over and over again, so they won’t distract me,” she says. About a year ago, she experienced a traumatic head injury, and while she used to prefer silence while working, she now finds simple, gentle music to be comforting and helps get her into the right headspace to work. “I honestly wonder if something about it is putting my brain at ease and helping me focus because it’s a tune I’ve heard over and over and over again throughout my whole life,” she says.

If you’re going to listen to music while you labor, the science and experts say it’s best to listen to straightforward, familiar music without any surprises that will jolt you out of your work. That’s where Merchant’s penchant for working while listening to black metal is perfectly rational: It’s music he knows well, a lot of black metal is droning and repetitive, and that often consistent energy means there are few sudden shocks to the listening experience that will divert his attention from the task at hand. It’s also why 8D audio, which adds an attention-grabbing, novel spin to sounds you might already be familiar with, can be distracting rather than soothing.

“I think it is quite likely that these sounds will be experienced as more immersive and possibly more ‘realistic’ depending on how they are constructed,” says Stephen Van Hedger, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Huron University College who conducted the 2018 nature sounds study. He notes that some people may find this more enjoyable — thus improving their mood and potentially helping them work — but “if the sound is too immersive, listeners might end up attending more to what they are hearing… instead of attending to their work.” So, your mileage may vary with 8D: It might give you a burst of energy, but the closeness and surround-sound quality, which sometimes makes it sound as if the music is spinning around you, might be distracting or even, as I found, stomach-churning.

Other styles of music, like improvisational jazz, can be similarly invigorating — or intrusive.

“If I am engaged in a cognitively demanding task (such as trying to remember food and drink orders in a restaurant), music that is hard to predict (e.g., free jazz) might involuntarily draw my attention away from what I’m supposed to be remembering, particularly when the music deviates from what I expect to hear,” Van Hedger says. Nature sounds, however, are reliably good for working to — you just need to find the type you prefer.

“We have a strong cultural association with nature and restoration, and the research seems to support this link. Many elements of nature (e.g., the soft rustling of leaves in the wind, the quiet babbling of a stream) seem to gently capture our attention, allowing our more directed attention abilities to rest and replenish,” Van Hedger says. “Some of my research has shown that simply listening to nature sounds on a computer for 10 to 15 minutes can temporarily improve aspects of cognitive performance.”

“Music from another room” is a type of modulated music that, I’ve found, is perfect for masking traffic sounds, my dog’s clicking claws, and my husband’s work calls, all without taking away the attention I need for my work. Sound designers will take a song or playlist — often, but not exclusively, oldies — and modulate it to sound as if it’s playing in another room at a party.

“Working from home has felt especially miserable and lonely lately, so I just do it as a weird trick to make myself feel like I’m somewhere or part of something bigger,” says Olly Browning, a freelance designer based in London who first informed me about the genre. “It’s so dark outside now and cold, and I can’t see friends because of Covid restrictions, so playing ‘music in the other room,’ as my friend so aptly puts it, just helps you feel like you’re tucked up in bed whilst life is happening outside, and it feels so… cozy! For a change.”

Often, these songs are layered with rain or thunder sounds — here’s one I’ve been listening to all day — that further add to the illusion that it’s soothing music heard through a wall while taking a brief break for air at a holiday party. Both the through-the-wall modulation, as well as the rain sounds, blur the lyrics and dampen any sudden changes in the music, making it ideal for listening while working. The comforting nostalgia further adds to the cozy, happy vibe. “The association between listening to music and workplace performance is partly driven by the capacity of music to improve one’s mood,” Van Hedger says, which helps explain how oldies-from-the-other-room is so adept at helping people get through tasks that demand focus — quite simply, it makes me feel good without requiring that I pay attention to it.

Erik Satie, the famous French 19th-century composer behind beautiful classical staples like Trois Gymnopédies, called his creations “furniture music.” He wanted his compositions to be heard, not listened to — auditory furniture that contributes to a soft, peaceful atmosphere. It is meandering, spare, entirely unlike Mozart, which people have long held up as music that makes its listener smarter. It’s not unlike ambient music, a more recent genre that’s widely listened to for the same general reason. In fact, ambient’s pioneering architect, Brian Eno, said that with it, he hoped to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Yet it’s music like Satie’s, atmospheric and unassuming, that makes for a superior working soundtrack. Your working music, which may be even better if it’s sweet birdsong or the gentle shushing of rain, should be a beautiful carpet over scratched-up floors: pleasant and comfortable and just the right size to cover up the blemishes beneath.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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