The Best Music to Boost the Brain – What’s Your Favorite?

Over the last decade, neuroscientists have been using sophisticated technology to learn more about how music is processed in the brain. The characteristics that make up a given piece of music – wavelength, tone, hertz, timber, pitch, etc. – affect us in a variety of ways. We are aware of some and unaware of others.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to know that listening to music is a great way to relax and restoring emotional balance. But, now we have the science to back it up. Neuroscientists out of the UK have identified not just the type of music best for reducing anxiety and stress, but also specific songs. They found that one song, in particular, produced a greater state of relaxation than any other music tested to date. Which makes sense because this particular song was created by sound therapists with the specific intention of decreasing cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate.  Check out the Neuro Nugget below to find out what it is.

There is a wealth of research that tells us how different types of music affect cognition, focus, concentration, creativity, and even confidence.  Once you know how music influences brain function, you can use it to your advantage.

We Will Rock You – Queen– for Power

Rock music is shown to infuse a sense of power-related thoughts and behaviors. A recent study examined the effect of “power tunes” like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” They found that power music elicited higher abstract thinking, visionary (big picture) thinking, and an increased sense of illusory control – all traits associated with intellectual power. Before you head in to the next big presentation, ask your boss for a raise or sit down at the negotiation table, crank up a little Queen and pump up your power.

Four Seasons – Vivaldi– for Focus, Memory and Concentration

The clarity and elegance of classical music has been shown to improve focus, memory and concentration. Slower Baroque music creates a mentally stimulating environment conducive to tap into higher cognitive tasks. However, if you’re not a big fan of Mozart or Vivaldi, soft instrumental ambient music can induce relaxed alertness. While whole-brain thinking is essential for creativity and deeper insight, lyrics are found to compete for the brain’s attention and decrease one’s ability to concentrate and focus. For the intellectual tasks, stick with instrumentals.

Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy– for Creativity

Unfamiliar music triggers abstract thinking and helps generate creative ideas. Sensory, free-flowing melodies like Impressionist music like Debussy and Ravel can stimulate the imagination and tap into your unconscious where many of your creative impulses live. Jazz and “new age” music with no dominant rhythm can also promote a sense of relaxed alertness and inspire creativity. Volume is the key here. If it’s too soft, your brain will work hard to try to tune it in; if it’s too loud your brain will work hard to try to tune it out. Moderate volume is the most effective to tap into your creative center.

The Girl from Ipanema – Frank Sinatra– for Mental Health/Stress

While we typically associate soothing tunes with relaxation, stress-reducing music really depends on the person and sometimes changes depending upon the day or task. Classic rock releases tension for some, while reggae, jazz, top-40 and big band can be emotionally uplifting for others. However, slower tempo samba music can be both soothing and energizing. And, let’s face it… a little Frank can make anyone smile.

[Insert Your Favorite Song Here] – for Higher Brain Function

There is a wealth of research showing the impact of music on higher brain function. The caveat is that it since music is so personal and subjective, the music you enjoy will be more effective for the cognitive boost. Studies show that performance on cognitive tests after listening to music is higher if the subjects like the music that was played. Conversely, when they heard music they didn’t like, the effect disappeared. If you’re a U2 fan, Mozart won’t give you a brain boost as much as U2 will. Any music that puts you in a positive frame of mind and increases your arousal levels will produce cognitive benefits almost immediately. The next time you feel yourself dragging or struggling to meet a deadline, fire up your favorite song and let the music move you.

Now that you know the science behind music, you know how to use it to your advantage. Experiment with your playlists and load them up with the tunes that speak to you. Let the music take you where you want to be. Identify the type of music that relaxes your mind, body, and spirit and all three will thank you.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Thank you for another informative article, Melissa. I’m glad I read to the end because my classical list is not awakened by what the tests show. I’ve been a classical music nut since HS and studied music in college. Although nothing written in the modern era will replace my top 10 (Beethoven’s 9th being #1), I do understand the effect that it has; especially when it comes to putting us in a good mood.

    • I’m sure you’re not alone with your preference for Beethoven, John. One thing that I’ve learned is that the music I like lifts me up faster than music I don’t like. One cannot overestimate the power of joy in music! Thanks for taking the time to read and reflect.

  2. Melissa!
    Wow! I love the information backing up that which only makes sense! Long before the “baby Mozart” videos/ CD,s I played a lot of Mozart and classical music for my babies… I just believed the right music was good for their brains! thank you very much for this
    I am just reminded now of a road trip in the car when my 3 year old at the time sang “Hava Nagila” in her own way for an hour! The funny thing is that these were the only words to the song she cared to repeat… just feeling the energy and the joy of celebration was magic, so thank you now again for the recollection of this memory!
    Have a great weekend

    • I think we all have those musical memories that are etched into our brains, Paula. Thanks so much for sharing yours! I’m really glad this one resonated with you.

  3. Very interesting Melissa. As a creative person myself, I can absorb the musical radiation of almost anything… My creative triggers are from the early year of Tangerine Dream. My rage triggers tend to involve the ranting lyrics of Henry Rollins or the hard edge of Metallica. My love triggers range from Gordon Lightfoot to Alison Krauss… and my overall cloth is cut directly from a couple of vintage Black Sabbath records. Throw in some Floyd and Zeppelin and we’re getting somewhere… My brain is like a chemistry set of progressive rock albums, many of which bring me out of my lethargic state when things get overwhelming…

    • LOL… wow, you have quite the eclectic range there, Aaron! Thanks for taking the time to read and give us a glimpse of your playlists!

  4. Melissa, I love this article! Fascinating facts and I found myself nodding my head and going “hmmm” as I read it – thanks for a midday brain stimulation. All of what you share here makes so much sense. When I run, I often listen to a combination of music, and Queen is on my playlist. But sometimes, I look to Jason Mraz. It depends on my mood and the amount of stress I need to run off – pun intended.

    To your points, however, music is often an excellent aid in many areas of our lives. I particularly honed in on the piece about classical music. I’m not one who can listen to music while I work, but perhaps it’s because I listen to music with lyrics. I find I have a hard time concentrating on what I’m doing when words are involved. Possibly switching to classical or instrumental is the key, and I may give it a try.
    I enjoyed learning a bit about the science behind the music. Thanks for adding to my daily dose of knowledge, Melissa!

    • You’re so right about one’s current mood and mindset being a factor, Laura. I’ve found myself switching playlists in the middle of a song because it’s distracting rather than facilitating cognition. I’m so glad you found value in this one! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  5. Melissa, thank you for this article. Music does wonders for me especially folk music. The poetic singer-songwriters like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Bod Dylan Phil Ochs, and others both relax me as well as inspire me to write. Recently, I have found some old songs by the Bee Gess way before their horrible disco days. Robin Gibb had an incredible voice that always pleases me. Of course, rock n roll or even some punk has positive effects especially when I listen to and watch videos from The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Ramones, and The Clash who I actually “hung out” with music. I know what I like in terms of music. Sometimes I will listen to several different types of music at night as mentioned above in one evening depending on my mood and what I see as I scroll through YouTube. In my case, a playlist is not something I need or would use as it destroys my enjoyment of the spontaneity of going from style to style. Very interesting article, Melissa.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and reflect, Joel. I think that one point many of us underestimate is that music is personal and finding the right music has so much to do our experiences and memories. Someone once commented on one of my music posts that the best music for the brain is the music you like the best. I’d have to say there is truth to that.

    • Thank you, Melissa, for your response to my comment. It was a pleasure to read your article. Everything you said in your comment makes perfect sense.

  6. OMG, Melissa, I love this! I had planned on recording a solo podcast on music today. The research you provide reinforces my thinking. As a child of the seventies, square as I was, I loved rock music. As I have gotten older, I enjoy all kinds, and when I am practicing for a speaking engagement, I play classical music. Claire de Lune, Prelude a L’Apres-midi D’un Faune and Reverie by Debussy are some of my favorites to listen when I need centeredness and calmness. The fabulous information you have shared with us could not be more timely. Thank you!💖

    • I’m so glad you found value in this one, Darlene! I, too, love music and have learned how to use the right music for the right tasks. It’s pretty amazing when you realize how different sounds, melodies, tempos, etc. affect the brain!