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Blake Reichenbach - Mar 23, 2020

Using Audio to Improve Focus, Mood, and Sleep Quality: Can the Right Soundtrack Help You Get Unstuck?

It probably doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture yourself in the following situation:

You’ve got a deadline coming up. You know what you need to do and you have the information you need to do it. You sit down at your computer, put your hands on the keyboard, and… you go blank. Sitting there, poised to work, your brain is focusing on everything but the task at hand. Suddenly, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are open in other tabs. Slack dings as a coworker sends you an update on something you had discussed earlier, complete with a funny GIF. Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes pass and you’re no closer to completing your task than when you started.

With each second, you’re getting closer and closer to your deadline. Steadily you get more and more anxious about completing the task at hand, and the more anxious you get, the harder it is to finish your work.

Okay… catch your breath and let your heart rate come back down to normal. This situation is one in which I find myself all the time. It's not an uncommon situation, either.

Anecdotal evidence from talking to coworkers and the research on focus agree: across the board, most of us are pretty bad and putting our heads down and getting into a flow state. 

Whether it’s among students trying to prepare for exams or employees trying to tie-up loose ends and finish projects, most of us consistently find ourselves in a position in which we struggle to focus and get into a state of concentrated work. Everything from our phones to browser notifications to our environments can make uninterrupted productivity feel like an impossibility.

There are a myriad of strategies you could implement (and should implement) to help prevent this type of fractured concentration– such as mindfulness, meditation, and limiting technological distractions– but strengthening these muscles takes a lot of time and practice.

So, what if there was a way to get a leg up on the struggle of maintaining concentration when it really counts? Better yet, what if the way of doing so was affordable, only required a pair of headphones, and didn’t require months and months of practice for you to start noticing the benefits?

That's where Brain.fm on Tidal comes into play.

What is Brain.fm?

I have said on multiple occasions that if something sounds too good to be true, it is. So in discussing Brain.fm, I want to be clear that it's not a miracle of pseudo science.

It's an application of neuroscience.

Let's start start by outlining what it is not. Brain.fm is not a supernatural cure for attention disorders. It’s not going to unlock some untapped portion of your brain. It’s not going to make you impervious to the temptations of social media. 

What it does do, however, is utilize a comprehensive foundation in auditory neuroscience to create music that’s enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI) to create a listening experience that makes it easier for you to focus, relax, or sleep.

In my experience of trying it out, Brain.fm was pretty effective at helping me block out unnecessary stimuli, which is helpful since I often work from coffee shops or around dogs who are anything but subtle. There’s still a bit that I had to do on my own end to make it fully effective– such as muting Slack and text message notifications on my computer– but overall, I felt like it solidly did what it was supposed to do.

Best of all, Brain.fm and Tidal recently announced that they are partnering together to stream Brain.fm's tracks as a part of Tidal's offerings. 

Why Listen on Tidal? 

I'm what you might call a budget junkie. I don't spend money unless I absolutely have to and I look for every possible opportunity to reduce or bundle my existing expenses.

(That's not an exaggeration. Every week I buy the same amount of chicken, canned black beans, and frozen broccoli that I know I'll need to prep 10 perfectly portioned meals so that I can keep my weekly food budget under $60... budgets are my friend.)

That's why I got so excited about the Tidal and Brain.fm partnership. I already pay for a music streaming subscription– I don't want to pay an extra monthly fee to be able to use Brain.fm. Keeping them separate would put me in a position where I'd feel like I had to choose. Do I downgrade to a "freemium" music streaming service and have to listen to ads so that I can use Brain.fm? Or, do I keep my premium streaming subscription and just miss out on Brain.fm? 

This partnership means that I don't have to pick. I can get my music streaming and a boost to the amount of time I can spend working in a flow state all from a single subscription, single app, and single login. 

The Science of Listening to Brain.fm

To quote their own research on the matter:

Recent work has shown that modifying ongoing oscillations can improve cognitive performance (Albouy et al., 2017; Ngo et al., 2013). This comes from experiments in labs using methods that are costly and cumbersome (like magnetic stimulation). But we also know that sound can modify neural oscillations (Luo & Poeppel, 2007; Doelling & Poeppel, 2015), and in sleep research simple acoustic stimuli like clicks and pink noise have been used to drive slow-wave activity, producing benefits to deep sleep and memory retention (Papalambros et al., 2017).
This knowledge has critical implications for sound design. Perhaps the influence of acoustic modulation on oscillatory activity could be used to great effect if this was done deliberately. After iterating between creating and testing music we have found several regimes in which this seems to be true. A particularly strong finding was that beta-rate modulation (12-20Hz, between beats and roughness) appears effective for reducing attentional lapses, and this is now a core part of Brain.fm’s Focus music technology.

If you're curious about going in-depth on the science of what Brain.fm is doing, I recommend checking out the white paper they've published. It's fairly thorough without being difficult to read, and it breaks down the research that went into creating their product and how they're continuously using data to enhance the experience. 

What it's like Using Brain.fm

Unlike other forms of auditory stimulation, such as binaural beats, when you’re listening to Brain.fm, what you’re listening to sounds like music rather than constant auditory modulation. I’ve been using Brain.fm while writing recently, and when the tracks first start playing, it's like you’re listening to a movie soundtrack. The songs have a cinematic quality to them. You can detect the sound modulation that they use, but unlike a binaural beat track, you don’t feel like there’s a helicopter hovering nearby–– you actually hear the music that’s being played.

Best of all, it's music that you'll enjoy but which won't distract you.

While I’ve had some success with alternatives (such as binaural beats tracks you can stream on YouTube for free or classical music), I feel like there are a few distinguishing factors that set Brain.fm apart.

  1. First, the tracks with Brain.fm are seamless. When streaming binaural beats tracks on YouTube, it’s not uncommon for ad breaks to completely undermine their intended use. With classical music, transitions from one song to another can be pretty jarring and distracting; if you’ve ever gone from the second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E-Minor: Music from the New World to Gustav Holst’s The Plants, Op 32: Mars, the Bringer of War, you know what I’m talking about.
  2. Second, with Brain.fm, there’s a “warm-up” period, so to speak, in which you’re getting accustomed to the music and letting it become a part of your workflow. According to Brain.fm’s website, you should start to experience results in 10-minutes or less. Your body takes a moment to adjust to the stimulation, and once it does, you’re more likely to enter into a flow state that can linger even after you stop listening. In my experience, neither binaural beats nor classical music has the kind of effect that sticks with you beyond the end of the listening experience.

At this point, I think it's safe to say that Brain.fm is quickly becoming one of my new favorite tools. Even during the first few days back to work after the Daylight Savings Time time change, I'm feeling alert and focused when listening to Brain.fm while working and writing. 

Are you Ready to Tune in? 

Like I talked about before, if you have a Tidal subscription already, that's going to get you the most bang for your buck. Along with access to Brain.fm's tracks, a Tidal membership comes with access to exclusive content, ticket giveaways, concert livestreams, and their catalog of 250,000+ HD videos, as well as podcasts, and over 60 million songs globally.

As if that wasn't already enough, our friends at Tidal have hooked Self-Himprovement up (which basically means we're working with Jay-Z now if you really think about it; that puts this website within a single degree of separation from Beyoncé herself). You can support us AND get all the benefits of Tidal x Brain.fm by signing up for a new Tidal account today.  Just click here and get your first 30-days free!

In terms of getting the most bang for your buck, that’s probably the best way to get access to Brain.fm, especially if you’re already a heavy music, podcast, and streaming consumer.

Alternatively, you could also listen directly from the Brain.fm website. When trying it out there, you have access to 5 free sessions, which can be a great way to try it out and make sure it works for you before making a financial commitment to it.

All-in-all, Brain.fm has been a great addition to my daily workflow. I haven't yet utilized it for sleep or meditation, but considering the success I've had with using it while working, it's already proven to be worth the (small) investment. 

Written by Blake Reichenbach

He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

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