Will Henshall has touched just about every nook and cranny of the music business.
In the early 1990s, he played guitar in the U.K.-based band Londonbeat, best known for its international chart topper, “I’ve Been Thinking About You.” From there, Henshall went on to create Rocket Network, a technology that networks audio recording studios (he sold it to music software company Avid in 2003). He has also developed other music-related technology, including a software add-on to Pro Tools, the industry standard platform for digital audio recording.
And just last month, Henshall launched the beta version of his latest music-related endeavor: focus@will, a streaming service for people seeking to listen to music to boost productivity.
The idea sprouted from Henshall’s observation that people tend to listen to music as they work, study and write. This appears especially common among the millennial generation, or Gen Y, who practically grew up with ear buds in at all times and who are taking over workforces across the globe.
But most of the music people are accustomed to listening to, Henshall said, is not intended to help them be more productive or learn more efficiently. It’s meant to engage and entertain. In other words, it’s for pleasure.
“A U2 album is designed to have you driving up the California [interstate] 1 with the top down on your convertible singing your heart out,” Henshall said. “So if you put that kind of music on in the background while you’re trying to work, study or write, it’s actually more distracting. You’re better off not doing it.”
Determining the type of music that actually makes people more productive comes down to brain science. Most music — the kind listened to for entertainment — is targeting the part of the brain that triggers dopamine, the pleasure chemical in the brain’s limbic system, Henshall said.
For music to promote productivity, however, it has to soothe the limbic system to the point where the music is not a distraction or pleasure vehicle, but is a block to all things that interrupt us from concentrating on the task at hand.
The kind of music that eliminates distraction from this part of the brain and promotes focus, enhanced concentration and knowledge retention has some common traits.
First, Henshall said true productivity-boosting music can’t contain vocals. It also cannot have any type of instrument meant to mimic the human voice — for instance, saxophone, violas or violins. “We’re wired to hear a human voice,” Henshall said. “So we found that if a piece of music is playing in the background and it has a voice, it emotes something to you.”
The listener also cannot know the piece of music. That, too, is an element for distraction, not productivity and focus. Therefore, the music in the focus@will library is carefully curated, all instrumental and largely unknown to the end-user.
In essence, learners looking for music to be more productive should listen to the opposite of the kind they would listen to for pleasure. Henshall said if an individual listens to jazz, for example, and is used to listening to legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, perhaps instrumental electronica or tribal music might be better for focus.
However, productivity music doesn’t work for everyone.
Namely, it doesn’t work well for musicians, whose penchant to examine the progression of every piece of music — no matter what genre — in itself is a distraction mechanism. It also doesn’t work well for people who are naturally easily distracted. This applies for people on both ends of the spectrum — those who are easily distracted by everything and those who don’t seem to be engaged by anything at all.
Time is also an important factor. The music in the focus@will library, Henshall said, is designed to keep listeners engaged in their work in 100-minute intervals. Henshall said that through the team’s research with psychologists and neuroscientists they discovered 100 minutes to be about the perfect amount of time for optimal concentration. It’s why most popular movies tend to peak at about 90 minutes, or an hour and a half.
Therefore, focus@will’s streaming service — akin to Spotify or Pandora for popular music — is intended for people to push play, forget about it, look up, and find that 100 minutes have gone by. Workers should then take a break — stretch or grab a drink of water — sit back down, press play, and work for another 100 minutes.
Henshall said his team has yet to determine if the music in the focus@will library actually helps people, from a purely scientific perspective, learn and retain information better. He said that’s something they plan to look into further once the service is fully off the ground.
However, he was not afraid to suggest that a correlation between the two was likely to exist in some form or another.
“If you’re able to put your full attention,” Henshall said, “that has such a huge difference rather than not having your attention and trying to retain information.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.