Your brain on music: the psychology of sound
How to create the soundtrack to a healthy life
While anyone with a music streaming app may fancy themselves a DJ, there is a science to the psychology of sound.
The right music can motivate you at the gym, keep you focused on repetitive tasks, and help you unwind. Other sounds can interfere with work and learning.
“I think one theme throughout the research indicates that allowing for personal choice in terms of the type of music used, the timing and duration of its use, and the type of task it accompanies is important in determining its benefit,” says Dr. Amanda Beaman, Clinical Psychologist at Medcan.
That’s why Medcan has eliminated television screens broadcasting mindless babble and partnered with BELLOSOUND. The premium music styling company curates playlists that contribute to a positive feeling across our various spaces, including the Refine by Medcan lounge and our fitness centre.
“Our goal is to create a harmonious experience inside the clinic by introducing a diverse mix of music that is engaging and inspiring,” says Daniel Buckman, Founder and CEO of BELLOSOUND. “Our objective is to design an ever-changing soundtrack that will contribute towards the productivity of the team, clients and partners of Medcan. And now we have ways to share the signature sound of Medcan beyond the clinic walls.” (Go to the Refine by Medcan station on Spotify here)
Here’s how to use the psychology of sound to your benefit at work, when working out and when tuning out.
Music in the workplace: productivity boom or bust?
As far as productivity goes it seems there are mixed results and many caveats, explains Dr. Beaman. Some research shows that listening to music can improve productivity through its effect on improving mood and reducing mind wandering.
“When it comes to academic performance, music may be disruptive to attention and memory, especially for people who already have lower working memory capacity. So, adopting an office-wide initiative to have background music may have mixed effects as it may not account for personal choice and individual differences in attentional/memory capacity,” says Dr. Beaman.
Here’s how you can use music to improve your performance at work.
Music at Work
Use music to drown out a noisy workplace and put you in a better mood
This is especially suitable for those in open offices: where chatty desk mates may be distracting. Hiding behind one’s headphones, can lead to faster work completion. “When music evokes a pleasant mood and an increased arousal state, participants perform better on non-musical tasks,” writes Teresa Lesiuk, associate professor of music education and music therapy at the University of Miami.
Background music can support you in repetitive tasks
If your work is clearly defined and is repetitive in nature, music is definitely useful. Researchers say it’s likely the improved mood that results from listening to positive sounds that leads to the boost in productivity. This study found assembly line workers displayed signs of increased happiness and efficiency while listening to music.
Choose lyric-free songs or ambient sounds for focus, creativity
For immersive tasks, choose music without lyrics to avoid activating the language center of the brain. Baroque-period tunes were found to be beneficial in this small study. For creative sessions, the research suggests pressing play on ambient noise at a moderate level. Think white noise or similar mellow sounds like rainfall or river sounds.
Does music make you exercise harder?
“With respect to using music to enhance our experience and outcomes during a workout, there is evidence to support both,” says Dr. Beaman of the research. “When we select our own music it has been shown to enhance our mood, reduce our ratings of perceived exertion during a workout and improve our energy and output. The beneficial effects of music seem to be most prominent during self-paced exercise.”
Research has linked the following benefits to working out with music:
- distracts us from pain, fatigue and boredom
- elevates mood
- reduces perceived effort
- may even promote metabolic efficiency and performance
- Your heart rate and breathing increase – these biochemical reactions – motivate you to move faster
Choose music you associate with happy memories and feelings
Create playlists full of music affiliated with motivational movie scenes (i.e. Rocky) or songs that will take you to your happy place.
Pick songs with the right tempo
Curate songs with appropriate tempo (speed) and rhythm response (i.e. does your body want to boogie when the song comes on?). Research suggests that anything higher than 145 beats per minute (bpm) does not seem to contribute to any additional motivation. That being said, most people prefer songs around 160 bpm. Songza and jog.fm can help you match the tempo of your workout with songs as fast as 180 bpm.
Serenity sounds, serenity now
“With regard to relaxation, there is certainly evidence showing that music is an effective strategy to help reduce activation of the stress response in both laboratory and every day settings. This seems to be particularly so when people report that they chose the music for the explicit purpose of becoming more relaxed. There is some preliminary research showing that having social support present while listening to music, amplifies its stress reducing effects,” says Dr. Beaman, Clinical Psychologist at Medcan.
Research includes a meta-analysis of 400 studies, including one that followed patients who were about to undergo surgery. Those who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Similar results were found in patients with fibromyalgia, another with elder patients with delirium.
Nature sounds may be the most soothing
For when you’d like to escape your current reality, nature sounds may be the grounding sounds you need. Rainstorms, crackling fires or ocean waves can lower anxiety and stress levels. A 2016 studyfound that people who listened to ocean waves for 15 minutes showed a decrease in pulse rate, muscle tension and self-reported stress — a reported difference to the classical music, which showed no significant changes on any of these measurements.
In 2017, researchers researchers reported that listening to natural sounds for as few as five minutes helps trigger the nervous system’s restorative state.
“…the earth has music for those who listen”
“Overall, it seems that music can have many benefits across different contexts,” adds Dr. Beaman. “However, like art, it tends to be quite personal — what might have an enhancing effect for one person could be distracting to another. This is important to consider when developing a playlist for others.”
Headphones in and volume up may be your go-to strategy – just choose your playlist carefully.