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Music to Help You Concentrate and Edit Faster

by Paul Mikhaylenko

Some photographers love it, some are indifferent, some dread it, and others outsource it. Whatever your approach or disposition, if you’re a photographer, post-processing is a critical part of your work and final product.

Those of you who edit your own images likely have a time set aside every week when you lock yourself up in your studio and hash out as many images as possible.

But like with any discipline which requires concentration, you find yourself constantly distracted.

What’s the solution?

Mastering a sustained flow state. You are most productive when you can enter into a hyper-focused state of mind. The challenge is learning to extend this state of mind and one of your best tools is properly curated music. But music is a double-edged sword, it can do just as much harm as good in sustaining your flow state.

Top 10 Scientific Tips for Choosing the Best Brain-Nourishing Music 

1. Aim for songs with an “average tempo.” According to this study, for maximal concentration benefit, aim for study music at approximately at 60BPM (beats per minute). This tempo lines up exactly with the ticking of the second hand on a clock, so you can easily check for it when you listen to a piece of music. Of course, this is only a guideline and the emphasis is moderation. Flow states are distracted by extremes. Two examples of tracks that nicely embody “average tempo” are The Swimmer by Phil France and Rainfall by Michael Jones and David Darling.

2. Avoid the extremes in dynamics, rhythm, mood, and even your personal feelings about a track. Look for music that is not too loud but not too soft; that has clearly, but not forcefully or violently, articulated rhythms; and that offers interesting but not jarring variations in melody. Avoid the songs you love so much you have to drop everything in awe every time you hear them, as well as those you detest. However, don’t confuse a lack of extremes with a lack of inspiration. Seek out music that is subtle, not simplistic.

3. Explore good classical playlists. Many classical pieces exhibit the music traits scientific research has identified as important in good study music. But don’t feel bad if you encounter classical music that you don’t like. Even the most revered composers of centuries ago produced some clunkers. If classical music is an alien world for you, you can start by exploring curated playlists on services like Spotify. They’ll get you acquainted with the masterpieces that have stood the test of time. Consider also focusing on a different composer each day or week.

4. Include ambient tracks in your playlists. Almost all good study music is instrumental; lyrics distract the mind. Ambient music is a relatively new and increasingly popular genre of instrumental music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over tempo and structure. Seek out tracks that blend in rhythmic elements throughout the composition. You might start with “Hoppipolla,” by Sigur Ros, and “Happiness,” by Jonsi & Alex.

5. Incorporate sounds of nature. There is a reason so many great thinkers and writers have immersed themselves in the wilderness to find inspiration. Nature sounds can make a great addition to your study music playlists. Rainyscope is an entirely free service that offers an array sounds corresponding to the seasons. Noisli is a favorite of many because it enables you to create a customized nature soundtrack by blending in elements like rain, thunder, wind, the ocean, and rustling leaves at just the right volumes to please your ears.

6. Aim for a consistent, moderate volume. It is obvious to most people that study music should not be too loud — headaches have never been a ticket to great mental achievement. Many are surprised to learn, however, that very quiet music is equally distracting because we instinctively strain our ears to hear it. That’s why the sound of a whisper instantly snaps us to attention. One study revealed that 70 decibels (dB) is the ideal volume for concentration-enhancing music, which happens to be almost exactly the volume level of a normal conversation. Before settling into work, scan through your playlist, listening to a snippet of each song. Delete any songs that greatly differ in volume from the rest. You may also wish to consider downloading the audio enhancement app Boom 2, which has advanced volume and equilizer controls.

7. Explore the world of movie soundtracks. Movie soundtracks were created specifically to function as background music, so there is inherent overlap between their function and the function of study music. Soundtrack recordings also feature some of the richest and most beautiful music written today. However, many pieces on soundtrack recordings are too closely tied to a specific scene to embody the overall spirit of moderation that study music requires. One song can be helpful while the next could be too eerie or jarring. This is where curated playlists are especially helpful; consider starting with “Samantha,” from Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for The Judge, and “Cornfield Chase,” from the Interstellar soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. You can also check out my personal Soundtrack Playlist on Spotify for ideas.

8. Consider jazz, but with caution. Jazz remains one of the most intriguing and inventive realms of music in the world today. Many jazz classics make great study music because of their stable, lightly accented rhythms and the combination of repetition and variation. But jazz can also be very distracting because of the genre’s focus on soloing and highly individual expression. In the 1940’s, the BBC had a radio show called, “Music while you work” which was aimed at improving productivity among factory workers. Interestingly, the music had specific rules for what could and could not be played. Among the requirements, jazz was mostly banned because it was too distracting “due to the variability of its tone”. Careful selection of tracks is essential. I would recommend “Where or When” by Wynton Marsalis, Brad Mehldau’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “Watercolors” by Pat Metheny as good launching points for your journey into the diverse world of jazz. And as with classical music, curated playlists can serve as great guides.

9. Draw upon the inspirational and therapeutic aspects of music. Tasks which require concentration and creative thinking also require inspiration. But inspiration can be maddeningly hard to come by. Music has the unique ability to influence our feelings and help stimulate creative inspiration. If you find yourself uninspired to focus, consider taking a moment to listen to something you love. Apart from Writer’s Block, if you’re struggling with distracting negative feelings, take advantage music as a powerful therapeutic resource when looking to overcome your stress, depression and negative emotions.

10. Subscribe to a music streaming service like Spotify or iTunes. If you regularly listen to music, such an investment is worth every penny. Here are some points to consider:

  • You’ll receive instant access to nearly every song you can imagine.
  • You’ll get continuity between your desktop and cell phone devices.
  • You’ll have access to a much higher quality of sound (bitrate).
  • You’ll have access to many curated playlists and recommendation algorithms.
  • You’ll never have to worry about commercials.
  • You’ll never have to worry about storing your music (physically or digitally).
  • These services are affordable (typically $10/month).

One of the best services which I personally use is called Focus at Will, which is a subscription service to the best possible flow-state music you can get. They have a team of scientists and musicians who have figured out what kind of music your brain needs to maximally sustain your focus. In this era of beeping, flashing, buzzing distractions everywhere you look, developing your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time will not only make you a more successful photographer and entrepreneur but also add a richness of meaning to all of your daily experiences.

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