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Video Game Soundtracks: The Ultimate Music for Productivity?

Posted by cfeehan on March 4, 2016

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There are two types of people in this world: those who are convinced they need complete silence to study or get work done, and those who believe they can listen to music and still be productive. This seems to be an age-old debate – which context is actually better for productivity or memorizing information? What is the science behind it? And are there certain kinds of music that may be better than others?

Many sources have recently come out with research showing that video game music might be the perfect backdrop for getting work done, and it isn’t too difficult to see why. In most video games, you’re required to complete a quest while solving puzzles, navigating uncharted lands, interacting with strange beings, and so on along the way. These are all tasks that require significant amounts of mental energy, and they’re all being completed while light, unchallenging music plays in the background.

One example of video game music that is said to aid in gameplay rather than distract players is the soundtrack in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s mostly very uplifting, doesn’t take up too much attention, and overall is pleasant to listen to.

Another one like this is the Final Fantasy soundtrack. It’s soft and beautiful, and would definitely be considered to be “easy listening”.

Finally, if you’re in more of a “I want to crush this assignment and/or business proposal” mood, I’d recommend trying out the Halo soundtrack instead, because it’s a little more intense and “battle mode” than the previous two.

Although the styles of these soundtracks may be different, the one important factor they all share is that they don’t have any lyrics. This is an incredibly significant feature when looking for background music to listen to while completing a task, and you’re about to learn why.

Warning: I hope you’re ready for a bit of a science lesson, because things are about to get technical.

The Working Memory Model

According to the Working Memory Model proposed by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, there are three parts to our immediate working memories: the visuo-spatial sketch pad, which processes visual information, the phonological loop, which processes verbal information, and the central executive, which coordinates resources and directs the flow of information.

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Parts of Working Memory in Application

Studying/Working in Silence

When you work or study in silence, your memory is allowed to process either visual and verbal information without complication, because no cognitive resources are being used up.

Studying/Working on Verbal Tasks

When you listen to music with lyrics – another form verbal information – while trying to memorize information or complete work that is word-based, your brain cannot effectively process or hold both sets of verbal information because your phonological loop is being overworked. You cannot easily stop unintended words from accessing the phonological loop, and this is why vocalizations of any kind in music will distract you while you attempt to work on anything that is not visually-based.

Studying/Working on Visual Tasks

The exception to this rule is when you’re working on or studying visual information, such as fine arts or graphic design. The reason for this is that visual information is processed by the visuo-spatial sketch pad, which functions completely independently from the phonological loop. This means that while the visuo-spatial sketch pad is processing the visual information you’re taking in, the phonological loop is processing the verbal information (the lyrics in the music), and you are able concentrate on both tasks.

Alternatives to Video Game Music

In case you’re really not emotionally ready to hop on the “video game soundtrack as background music” train, there are a few other options to help you concentrate while working.

Classical Music

It has long been said that classical music promotes concentration while working, and many studies have been done on this. Although the reviews on its effectiveness are mixed, you can give it a go with Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos (K448)”, which has even been shown to increase listeners’ spatial reasoning skills.

White Noise

White noise is intended to drown out any small auditory distractions in your surroundings. It’s not too invasive – in fact, after listening to it for a few minutes, you barely notice it anymore. I would almost compare it to a radio station that isn’t getting clear reception, but way less annoying. If you want to try it out, visit https://simplynoise.com/. There are a few different settings, and you can adjust the volume to your exact liking. It definitely takes some getting used to, but if it works for you, it’s worth it!

Unfamiliar Music

Studies have shown that listening to music that is unfamiliar to you increases productivity significantly more than music you know. This is because hearing familiar music releases the chemical dopamine in your brain, which actually distracts you further. Take this into account when choosing the soundtrack for your next big study session!

If you're looking for a great free resource for studying or at work, check out Spotify's Focus category. It's loaded with a ton of great music and sounds to keep you focused without too much distraction.

Thank you for staying with me through the scientific parts of this blog, and I truly hope that you emerged from it a more educated individual. If you didn’t, I can only assume that it’s because you were listening to music packed with lyrics while reading it. If this was the case, go back to the beginning, change your music to the Ocarina of Time soundtrack, and read it again. Or else.

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Caitlin Feehan, Blogger & Editor


Converse have been my footwear of choice for the past 9 years, I’m convinced that all doors and sidewalks are conspiring against me, and I enjoy sticking my head out of the passenger window on long car rides.