How Music Helps You Enter Flow States

Music is an ideal means for entering Flow States. Neuroscientist Dan Levitin explains the neuroscience of music.

Sammi Geraci-Yee

Sammi Geraci-Yee

Guitar player on stage performing

Wisdom by Dan Levitin

Last week, we covered the conditions necessary for entering a Flow State. Flow is the feeling of complete absorption in an activity and the loss of the sense of self while focused on that task. 

Flow allows us to focus on our chosen target and completely ignore distractions. 

This has real-world consequences, in work and life. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes, “what distinguishes experts from novices is that they know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”

Let's face it: if you love your career, you strive to be an expert. Flow States are part of the expert's arsenal of skills. 

The ability to focus is essential for productivity and necessary for good mental health. By learning how to focus, you train your mind to give full attention to the task at hand.

Humans work best with the slow reward received at the end of focused discipline, not the quick fix of a dopamine hit.

When we switch attention back and forth from Task to Task to Task, not only do Tasks take longer to accomplish (and not nearly as well), our brains also produce significant amounts of cortisol and adrenaline. From a neurochemical viewpoint, multitasking depletes and drains our energy. Being focused is significantly less taxing—and more rewarding.

Music helps your brain focus and has long been an aid used for entering a Flow State. A Stanford University research team gained valuable insight into how our brains sort out the chaotic world by scanning people while listening to short symphonies by an obscure 18th-century composer.

Woman lying down listening to boombox

The team showed that music engages brain regions involved with attentional capacities, prediction capabilities, and memory. The goal was to understand how our brains sort through events, but the research revealed that musical techniques help us organize incoming information: what to focus on and what to ignore.

This system-wide effect of music is now well-known. As Dan Levitin writes in This Is Your Brain on Music, music serves as a communication tool across the oldest and newest regions of our brain. 

Rhythm stirs our bodies. Tonality and melody stir our brains. The coming together of rhythm and melody bridges our cerebellum (the motor control, primitive little brain) and our cerebral cortex (the most evolved, most human part of our brain).

Dr. Jonathan Berger, an associate professor of music (and co-author of the above study), believes music engages our brains over a period of time. He suspects that listening to music helps us sharpen our ability to anticipate events and sustain attention. In fact, as Levitin writes, anticipation is a primary sensation produced by listening to music. 

The most important way that music differs from visual art is that it is manifested over time. As tones unfold sequentially, they lead us—our brains and our minds—to make predictions about what will come next. These predictions are the essential part of musical expectations. 

Just as we slip into the Flow of a great novel, music evokes a deeply embedded need for storytelling in us. 

University of Miami associate professor, Teresa Lesiuk, discovered that people who listen to music in creative jobs (such as software designers and information technology specialists) complete their tasks quicker and come up with better ideas than those working in silence. They were also more satisfied with their work. Music created the backdrop of a story for them while they created. 

In short, music improves their mood as well as their focus.

Levitin notes that your love of specific genres is cultural. While you can continue to love new music at any age, the music you're passionate about between the ages of 18 and 20 sticks with you for life. 

When you're talking about music for focus, however, some genres work better than others. As clinical psychologist and music therapist Nicole Charara writes,

Studies have shown that calming, more ambient instrumental music targets the part of the brain that stimulates spatial-temporal reasoning, which is useful in solving math problems. The best overall background music for learning, that’s also backed by research, would be to encourage children to listen to songs with no lyrics or classical music, as this can be soothing and can help sustain their focus.

Charara might have focused on children, yet music positively impacts us at any age. Like Levitin, she emphasizes listening to music that works best for you.

Listening to the right tunes can complement studying and makes performing tasks more enjoyable. This is because individuals are more likely to focus and concentrate once they are calm and relaxed, which are crucial elements to retaining information.