Need to Focus? Put on Headphones

By: Steven Anderson, PhD Candidate

Happy young man

You’ve been putting it off for the entire week but the moment is here. You have to finish this paper. There is no time left. So you sit down, you open your laptop, and you idly move your cursor to your half-finished draft. For a moment, everything works. The words flow from your fingers. A paragraph comes to life. It seems so easy. That is, until you have to write another paragraph. Suddenly, you desperately wonder if anything terrible has happened in the news. Perhaps a natural disaster. You begin to seriously question if so-and-so has liked that photo you posted yet. Your hand begins to reach for your phone.

Distraction is a constant foe in higher education and the workplace. Frequently in front of our computers, we are pressured to accomplish more. Yet a growing body of scientific research is demonstrating that music, so useful for setting nearly any mood, is also effective at helping us focus. The work of Teresa Lesiuk, Ph.D., associate professor and program director for the Music Therapy program at the Frost School of Music, suggests that the positive effects of music on productivity may be due to simple changes in mood. Simply put, an unhappy mind wanders, while a happy mind is focused on the present.

As Dr. Lesiuk notes to the New York Times, “When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention. When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.” As a result, rather than recommending any specific genre of music to increase focus–although music without lyrics helps–Dr. Lesiuk encourages her research participants to listen to whatever music they like best. Music can help you focus simply grabbing your attention on the here and now, rather than how soon that deadline is. So although that “Deep Focus” Spotify playlist may help get you in the zone, a playlist of your own (ideally light on the vocals) favorites may do an even better job of helping you finally finish that paper.


Padnani, A. (2012, August 11). The power of music, tapped in a cubicle. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Lesiuk, T. (2005). The effect of music listening on work performance. Psychology of music, 33(2), 173-191.