I love listening to music. I have a huge collection of music and I’m always seeking new artists and albums to explore. I also spend most of my days working on a computer. It seems like the two would be a perfect match, but recently I am not finding that to be the case.

I got started down this line of thinking when I noticed a pattern with how I listen to music while working: I play the same songs over and over. I don’t normally do this when listening to music, only when I’m doing something at the same time. As I read more about this phenomenon, I uncovered some interesting things.

The first was from a book called On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind by psychologist Elizabeth Margulis, where she says:

“Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next… A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise. In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.”

Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, does the same thing:

“When you’re coding you really have to be in the zone so I’ll listen to a single song over and over on repeat, hundreds of times. It helps me focus.”

There are a few reasons why this happens:

  • The Mere Exposure Theory says that the more we’re exposed to a stimulus, the more we like it. Songs, and other things, grow on us. A repeating song, or small playlist of a few songs, puts us into a state of psychological flow.
  • Listening to music consumes attentional capacity, leaving less for what you’re doing. When you’re listening to music that you like while doing something, you are having more fun, but generally not doing the task better. In this study conducted in Taiwan, it’s called the Attention Drainage Effect.

Studies like this one confirm that listening to music before approaching tasks increases cognitive processes like attention and memory. Listening to music when taking a break seems like a good approach.

So… Work in Silence?

Psychology of musicAs much as I try, I cannot do this. Fortunately, I have found something better.

For a few months I’ve been using Brain.fm, which has become one of my favorite apps. It’s a brain entrainment utility which generates background noise to listen to while working, relaxing or sleeping. I started with a daily habit of using this tool for a few minutes each day to see what effect it had. And what I quickly found is that going back to music after listening to brain.fm was jarring and disorienting. I felt like I couldn’t focus entirely on what I was doing.

I listen to brain.fm for most of the day now. Try it and see if it doesn’t a similar effect for you.