Music and brain function are inextricably linked. Playing an instrument or listening to music is like a double shot of Red Bull for the brain. When you understand why and what type of music works best for the task at hand, you have the power to sync up your brain waves for rockstar performance.
The human brain is made up of billions of neurons that communicate through electrical pulses. Every thought, emotion, memory, and behavior is the result of this neural communication. When the neurons and electrical pulses fire, they create brain waves that are classified into five different types widely accepted as the spectrum of human consciousness. And these brain waves can either help or hinder any given task.
If you had an app that enabled you to see your brain waves as you went about your day (there is probably a 7th grader out there working on it right now), you’d see all 5 types. Depending upon what you’re trying to do − learn a new language, solve a brain teaser, or brainstorm the next big idea − one type will normally override the others, but they’re all in there somewhere. Too much or not enough of any of them can impact our ability to think, learn and function effectively, and affect our overall physical and mental well-being.
As complex as the human brain is, its tendency to follow a rhythm makes it somewhat predictable and easy to manipulate. Neuroscientists have discovered that sound frequencies can alter brain wave activity. For example, when we listen to music with a fast tempo or frequency, our brain waves tend to speed up. When we listen to slower music, our brain waves slow down. Think nightclub vs. yoga class. This phenomenon of the altering brain waves with external rhythmic stimulus is called brain wave entrainment (BWE).
Recent studies have examined how BWE with binaural beats produce a change in brain function by engaging both hemispheres of the brain. You hear one frequency in your left ear and a slightly different frequency in your right ear to produce a combined frequency that your whole brain processes. This whole-brain integration creates new neural pathways and depending upon the frequency, impacts the brain in amazing ways.
Here’s a simple cheat sheet to the five types of brain waves and ways to tap into each when you need them.
Gamma waves for peak mental and physical performance
Gamma waves (30-70 waves per second) are the most recent addition to the study of brain waves. While there is some discrepancy, neuroscientists generally agree that gamma waves link information to all areas of the brain to put you “in the zone.” Gamma waves enable extremely high levels of cognitive functioning, intellectual acuity, and rapid recall. High gamma frequency enables you to process incredible amounts of information very quickly, store it and retrieve it later. It’s also the brain’s natural antidepressant. People with optimal gamma activity are happier, more optimistic and enjoy greater personal peace than their peers.
How to get there: Tap into your gamma waves by mastering the art of transcendental meditation. Gearing up for an important event? Exercising compassion and empathy can send your brain into gamma frequency very quickly.
Too much: increased anxiety, unusually high levels of arousal
Not enough: inability to focus, chronic depression
Playlist: Classical, Tibetan meditation music
Beta waves for focus, concentration and learning
The brain generates beta waves (15-30 waves per second) in ordinary consciousness. This is where most of us operate during our waking state when we are engaged in typical daily activities that include language and decision-making. The beta state is primarily left-brain dominant associated with linear and logical thinking. This is where you check the boxes and get things done, but beta is also associated with heightened alertness that accompanies fear or danger. Stimulating beta activity can improve physical energy, emotional stability, and focus and concentration.
How to get there: A trip to Starbucks will increase beta waves as caffeine and other stimulants can give you a quick boost. However, the practice of gratitude and a healthy social exchange with someone you enjoy will pay off bigger and last longer.
Too much: inability to relax/sleep, increased stress
Not enough: poor cognitive function, depression
Playlist: baroque, jazz, calypso, top 40
Alpha waves for relaxation and a calm mind
Alpha waves (9-14 waves per second) are present when we’re alert but calm and relaxed. Alpha waves dominate our brain activity right after we wake up in the morning and just before we slip away into sleep at night. Slipping out of beta into alpha can lead to significant increases in the “feel-good” brain chemicals like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. The alpha state is occurs when the logical left brain backs off and the free-spirited, creative right brain steps up. At the highest level of alpha, we experience enhanced focus and concentration. The lowest level of alpha opens the door to your subconscious and where intuition and creative impulses live. This is where you need to be to set goals, visualize success and plan your strategy to get there.
How to get there: Yoga, meditation, and focused breathing techniques can help you slip into alpha. Moderate amounts of alcohol or other relaxants will also increase alpha activity. No wine in the conference room? Be sure to bring the right music. In fact, never brainstorm without music again.
Too much: disengaged physically/intellectually
Not enough: insomnia, stress, anxiety
Playlist: Debussy, new age, samba, ambient music
Theta waves for intuition, creativity, and relaxation
Theta waves (4-8 waves per second)are in the subconscious and found in states of deep daydreaming, hypnosis, and the REM dream state. This is the state that enables vivid visualizations and profound inspiration. Theta waves are associated with a deeper self emotional awareness, improved memory, heightened creativity, and advanced problem-solving abilities. Artists and musicians have tuned into their theta waves. People who have high levels of theta activity throughout the work day are able to see the “big picture” more clearly and are better able to cope with stressful situations. They are also more likely to create harmony than conflict in the workplace.
How to get there: Generate theta waves with meditation, sleep, hypnosis, and extended deep-breathing techniques. Take intentional mental breaks throughout the day to clear your head of everything but the sound of your breath. Inhale and count to six; exhale and count to six. Rinse and repeat.
Too much: inability to focus, heightened impulsivity, depression
Not enough: anxiety, stress, emotional immaturity, memory deficits
Playlist: Gregorian chants, romantic classical
Delta waves for rest and restoration
Delta waves (.5-3 hertz) are the slowest brain waves found most commonly in infants. We’re able to create delta waves during deep periods of dreamless sleep, but they tend to decrease with age. Delta is associated with the human growth hormones, anti-aging hormones, cell regeneration and tissue repair. Delta waves also decrease the production of cortisol which is linked to stress and significantly speeds up the aging process. When you wake up in the morning feeling energized and peaceful, you were probably in delta. Healthy periods of delta activity enable you to read people better through heightened compassion and understanding. Great leaders who have a perfect or nearly perfect sense of intuition have probably mastered their delta wave activity.
How to get there: Delta waves are perhaps the hardest to generate but can be produced through deep meditation, relaxation, and extended periods of uninterrupted deep sleep. You can’t take a delta nap at the office, but delta activity at night will pay off the next day.
Too much: severe ADD/ADHD, impaired cognition, inability to reason
Not enough: fatigue, chronic pain, migraines, insomnia
Playlist: natural soothing sounds like ocean tides or soft rains
You might also enjoy reading Boost Cognitive Power and Creativity with your Playlist.
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Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. We inspire people to understand how the brain works so that they can think, learn, and live better. We deliver tailored, dynamic workshops to help organizations improve their work by learning about learning and thinking about thinking.