Lyrics from Florence + The Machine's 'Sky Full Of Song'instagram/florence

As life throws at us work, exams, and projects to complete, we seem to be constantly looking for more effective ways to work. The number of hours I’ve scoured the internet for videos on ‘how to focus better’ or ‘ways to become more productive’ probably amount to half the number of hours I’ve actually spent knuckling down. So, is it really true that there’s an optimal soundtrack for working and, if so, what has mindfulness got to do with it

"The technique known as ‘binaural beats’, first discovered by the German researcher Henry William Dove in 1839, is in fact proven to have an effect on the chemical impulses in the brain"

During GCSEs, I quickly became obsessed with the lengthy study soundtracks on YouTube, with their enticing yet intimidating titles such as ‘STUDY POWER | Focus, Increase Concentration, Calm Your Mind’ and ‘Activate Your Higher Mind for Success’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. These soundscapes all seem to have one aim: to calm the mind, ease anxieties and heighten focus. Since year 11, I have become sceptical of the effects of such videos. My naïve younger self was disappointed when they did not work to my advantage; turns out that they weren’t going to magically transform me into the next Einstein and that if I wanted to have the ‘Super Intelligence’ promised by these soundtracks I would, sadly, have to work on that myself.

But is there some scientific reasoning behind these tracks? After all, there are thousands of these videos lurking around on the internet promising the same ‘calming soundwaves’, whether it be for focusing at work, meditating or even improving sleeping habits. After doing some research, it seems it is not all farce after all. The technique known as ‘binaural beats’, first discovered by the German researcher Henry William Dove in 1839, is in fact proven to have an effect on the chemical impulses in the brain, provoked by a specific alteration of sound frequency.

How it works

Two tones with different frequencies are played together, one in either ear (each less than 1000 Hz and either tone in each ear for the effect to work) and as a result the brain interprets the difference between these frequencies (which must be over 30Hz). This perceived frequential difference is the binaural beat. When we are regularly exposed to these sounds, there is scientific proof that it can alter our brainwaves and change our levels of alertness. The ‘beta’ and ‘alpha’ waves seem in the titles of these tracks simply refer to categories of brainwaves which are assigned according to the frequency of electrical pulse. For example, beta brainwaves have the highest frequency (15-40 Hz) and, when these types of brainwaves are prominent, we are highly alert and more likely to concentrate.

But these binaural beats, that tend to lack in rhythm, tonality and tempo, seem to come into a genre of music that veers away from mainstream listening. It is a soundscape that seems to have wellness and ‘mindfulness’ at the heart of it. Meditation music in general seems to come into its own category when attempting to place it within one of the countless genres of music. Some even consider the umbrella term of ‘meditation music’ sacrilege as it suggests that these are the optimal sounds when meditation practice is so personal that for many even a musical aid is not necessary.

Nevertheless, this genre has been a subject of curiosity for many contemporary composers, including twentieth-century composer Pauline Oliveros who experimented with the ‘sound exercises’ that are her ‘Sonic Meditations’. These match the key drone-like aspects of ‘meditation music’ and work to create a sonic landscape of indefinite pitches merging, each performance being completely unique due to the interactive elements (such a performance can be heard here). The sounds in ‘Sonic Mediation I’ are created by the audience, who therefore become the performers, and aim to pair the thinking mind with music. The meditation comes from the awareness when combining performance roles with listening, somewhat reminiscent of the sacred chanting of ‘om’, sometimes used in Pranayama yoga (yoga that focuses on breath and breathing techniques). The low-frequency vibration created in this audible breath technique is said to be particularly helpful for anxious people, yet again returning to the idea of lower pitches and frequencies calming the mind.


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So, when you next listen to your sleep playlist or to sounds that will get you working, think about how they help you to achieve your goals. Maybe the music consists of predominantly lower pitches, with little to no rhythm, when you are trying to get to sleep and higher pitches, faster tempos when you are getting motivated to exercise. Or perhaps it is the complete opposite. In my opinion, the ‘optimal music soundtrack’ does not exist. We each have different, individual needs when it comes to music, so do not let clickbait titles try and persuade you otherwise.

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