Can Music Really Improve Your Attention Span?

In the few hours I’ve spent trying to write this article, I’ve picked up my phone half a dozen times, opened and closed my Facebook page sporadically and scrolled through Instagram for a solid 15 minutes. So yes, I admit it. My name’s Tabi and I am addicted to distraction.
But then, I imagine, so are you. If it’s the evening, perhaps you’re reading this article on your iPhone, while catching up with Masterchef and painting your nails. Or perhaps you’re at work, flicking between this, Asos and an important email you’ve been thinking about writing for the last half an hour.
Advertisement
Hey, we’re all guilty of it. Modern technology is designed specifically to get our attention, and keep it. But what if I told you that music – or a specific type of music at least – could be the perfect antidote? Enter Focus@Will, a streaming site with hours and hours of music designed with one purpose: to help you concentrate. The site has attracted 1.5m users in five years, and its two most popular channels are a classical baroque channel and an up-tempo EDM trance dance channel. These two types of music have more in common than you’d imagine.
Music as a tool for concentration may be a fairly modern concept, but music as a tool for controlling the human brain is old. Berry-picking, hunter-gathering old. “It's an ancient tool for putting people into a trance and shifting their perspective,” explains Dr. Julia Mossbridge, the neuroscientist in the Focus@Will team.
“If you hear music some part of you – and I'm not saying it's a conscious part – some part of you knows evolutionarily the only way you could hear that music is if other people are around you,” she continues. “And the thing about music is that in order to produce it, people have to be safe. If a village is on fire, they're not going to be singing.”
The important part of Focus@Will’s fusion of science and art is that it attempts not to entertain you, but to tap into that unconscious part of your brain. The part that responds to your neighbouring cavemen drumming. “One of the reasons that humans love music is because it shortcuts your thinking brain,” explains founder Will Henshall.
“You could be in a supermarket tomorrow and hear a piece of music that was meaningful for you – maybe you heard it on a first date or when something big happened in your life – and it will immediately throw you back into that emotional state,” he continues. “And what happens is, literally, the sound goes through your ears straight to your limbic system, which is what some people call the 'reptile brain’. It’s the core emotional centre of your brain.”
Advertisement

The more you listen, the more your unconscious brain will associate the music with zoning in on whatever you're trying to achieve.

What the team have found through their work is that people get into flow states at certain tempos. The flow state is, simply, when your brain is fully focused on the task at hand. It’s when you’re most likely to solve problems, be creative or have (here’s hoping) ingenious thoughts.
It worked for Einstein, anyway. The lesser-appreciated musical side of Einstein is given some airtime in National Geographic’s current show Genius, starring Geoffrey Rush. “He used to play the violin to get himself into a flow state, to get himself into a creative space to be able to do the work that he was able to do,” offers Will. “And in fact he famously said that the theory of relativity was a musical theory.” National Geographic and Focus@Will have made an entire channel of music inspired by the great thinker.
Einstein was a huge fan of Bach in particular, and the team have now discovered a scientific reason why that may have helped him with his work. “It’s all about tempo. There’s a certain tempo when you can get into a flow state,” explains John Vitale, the music scientist behind the project. “So baroque happens to fall within these, and when you put electronic dance music production on top of it you have kind of a vitamin-fortified, more accentuated version – a focused version of Bach's great works.”
Another strand of their research to date has found that particular types of people respond better to listening to the music. Namely, creative introverts. These people, Will says, are often the writers, the developers, the designer and the artists... “They're the people who companies rely on to be their genius, to create” he suggests.
Advertisement
Quiet creative genius or not, we all struggle to get in the zone sometimes. But according to Julia, the difference between procrastination and that elusive flow state is not as great as you’d imagine. “In one state, the procrastination state, you're very aware of yourself and your failure,” she explains. “You do have focus, your attention is on something: it's on your own failure. But the flow state, your attention is on this piece of creativity that's coming out of you. So they're both in a way very focused states, it's just that one is you're focused on something that doesn't serve you.”
Even when you’re 30 minutes into a Facebook stalk you’re still in some kind of trance state, Julia explains. “They're trying to put you in a trance of constant communication and the brain loves that,” she says. “There are parts of the brain that are absolutely set up to constantly seek companionship because we are herd animals, we are not individual people. Anything that makes you feel like you're in constant connection to people, you will get addicted to immediately.”
Sounds familiar. Modern life often finds us walking down the road more interested in our phones than the people around us. Or trying desperately to concentrate on one task rather than jumping between 10 different tabs. But the trouble is, the more we do this, the more our brain needs to do it.
I think people are training their brains to have divided attention,” warns Julia. “Whatever you're doing, you're always training your brain. So if you're constantly dating guys who are arseholes, you're training your brain to seek out guys who are arseholes.
“If you're constantly leaving tabs open, you're training your brain to have divided attention and not really focus on one thing. So yes, you have to be careful about what you do because your brain assumes that whatever you do a lot of is something you want to get good at doing.”
The magic of the music that Focus@Will have made is it helps you train your brain to concentrate and enter that trance state. The more you listen to it, the more your unconscious brain will associate the music with zoning in on whatever you're trying to achieve. Just as being distracted leads to having divided attention, so repeat use of this music should technically teach your brain to get better at concentrating.
As the saying goes: practice makes perfect – so be careful what you practise.
Advertisement