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The Best Music to Boost the Brain

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

In 2014, Beats by Dre launched a massive marketing campaign to promote Powerbeats, the in-ear headphones designed with LeBron James. Of course, their goal was to capitalize on LeBron’s star power and sell more earbuds. The campaign was aptly named “My Music/My Power.” It was marketing genius, and the centerpiece was this commercial that helped drive revenue into the billions. Being an Akron girl and a LeBron fan, it got my attention. But, I wasn't alone. The original YouTube clip had 4 million views just two days after it was posted.

As it turns out, "my music/my power" is more than a catchy tagline. In fact, there is power in music - especially music we like. Advances in neuroscience enable researchers to peek inside the brain and quantitatively measure how music affects it.

A wealth of research supports the benefits of music on our physical, psychological and cognitive states. Our favorite melodies release dopamine, the "feel-good hormone," which activates our brain’s pleasure and reward system. Songs that trigger pleasant memories induce the production of oxytocin and slow meditative music increases serotonin as it lowers cortisol.

Music has a positive, immediate impact on our mental state. Fast tempos can psychologically and physiologically energize us while slower, meditative tunes can help us to relax and lower our stress levels. This is because the brain waves sync up with the music and this either speeds up or slows down other autonomic parts of your nervous system.

Music also affects mood and emotion. We experience it every time we watch a movie. Think about the theme songs for Rocky, James Bond, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. They each evoke emotions of inspiration, intrigue or danger. More than any other type of stimulus, music evokes feelings and heightens the emotions associated with them. The brain’s emotional center is highly engaged when processing music. The key is finding the right music for the task. teamed up with a music psychologist to create The Sound of Productivity Report. One interesting finding was that 79% of survey respondents work better with music, while 21% perform better in a music-free environment.

Studies also show that listening to music before or during physical activity can increase performance. Many top athletes plug in to mentally prepare. LeBron James rocks out to Jay-Z before he takes the court, Gabby Douglas is a Katy Perry fan, and Michael Phelps cues up hip hop to get psyched. Personal music preference plays a role, but we now know that different genres impact performance more than others.

If you're a golfer, you might want to add Miles Davis or John Coltrane to your playlist. A 2014 exploratory study examined the influence of different music genres on putting accuracy. The findings showed that music did improve putting performance over no music. Specifically, jazz was more effective than all of the other genres including hip hop, rap, classical, country, and rock.

Rock music is shown to infuse a sense of power-related thoughts and behaviors. A recent study examined the effect of “power tunes” like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” They found that power music elicited higher abstract thinking, visionary (big picture) thinking, and an increased sense of illusory control – all traits associated with intellectual power. Before you head in to the next big presentation, ask your boss for a raise or sit down at the negotiation table, crank up a little Queen and pump up your power.

The clarity and elegance of classical music has been shown to improve focus, memory and concentration. Slower Baroque music creates a mentally stimulating environment conducive to tap into higher cognitive tasks. However, if you’re not a big fan of Mozart or Vivaldi, soft instrumental ambient music can induce relaxed alertness. While whole-brain thinking is essential for creativity and deeper insight, lyrics are found to compete for the brain’s attention and decrease one’s ability to concentrate and focus. For the intellectual tasks, stick with instrumentals.

Unfamiliar music triggers abstract thinking and helps generate creative ideas. Sensory, free-flowing melodies like Impressionist music like Debussy and Ravel can stimulate the imagination and tap into your unconscious where many of your creative impulses live. Jazz and “new age” music with no dominant rhythm can also promote a sense of relaxed alertness and inspire creativity. Volume is the key here. If it’s too soft, your brain will work hard to try to tune it in; if it’s too loud your brain will work hard to try to tune it out. Moderate volume is the most effective to tap into your creative center.

While we typically associate soothing tunes with relaxation, stress-reducing music really depends on the person and sometimes changes depending upon the day or task. Classic rock releases tension for some, while reggae, jazz, top-40 and big band can be emotionally uplifting for others. However, slower tempo samba music can be both soothing and energizing. And, let’s face it… a little Frank can make anyone smile.

[Insert Your Favorite Song Here] – for Higher Brain Function

There is a wealth of research showing the impact of music on higher brain function. The caveat is that it since music is so personal and subjective, the music you enjoy will be more effective for the cognitive boost. Studies show that performance on cognitive tests after listening to music is higher if the subjects like the music that was played. Conversely, when they heard music they didn’t like, the effect disappeared. If you’re a U2 fan, Mozart won’t give you a brain boost as much as U2 will. Any music that puts you in a positive frame of mind and increases your arousal levels will produce cognitive benefits almost immediately. The next time you feel yourself dragging or struggling to meet a deadline, fire up your favorite song and let the music move you.

Now that you know the science behind music, you know how to use it to your advantage. Experiment with your playlists and load them up with the tunes that speak to you. Let the music take you where you want to be. Identify the type of music that relaxes your mind, body, and spirit and all three will thank you.

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