AutoFocus: the flowing soundscape for creative brains

4 min
A woman sits at a desk, looking at her notebook and holding a pencil to the page. On the table sits a silver Canon Light & Speaker ML-A, beside a potted plant and a picture in a frame.

Motivation. Attention. Concentration. If you’ve never struggled with them, what’s your secret? For the rest of us, they can be an endless challenge in a world that’s fighting for all three from a dozen places at any time. Sometimes – quite often, in fact – our brains require a little help.

This help can take many forms. We switch off our phones, block out our calendars and seek out secluded locations where we can focus, uninterrupted, on tasks that require our full presence and attention. But the human brain works in mysterious ways and even our best efforts at conducting our minds directly to the task in hand (and keeping it there!) can fail dismally.

“We all have these natural brain cycles when we're focused on any activity and there are times when, especially if you're a creative person, you might just kind of tune out for a while,” explains Lyz Cooper, co-founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy. Through her practice, she has come to understand that the brain must travel through different states in order to be at its most productive. “Daydream states are necessary for optimum brain health,” she adds. “I call it ‘screensaver mode’.”

For Lyz, sound and music have the ability to take the human mind into productive, resting and creative places, and the three are inextricably linked. The key to sustained attention and focus, it seems, is not in maintaining a single level of attuned consciousness but cycling through many cadences. And this choice of words is deliberate, as Lyz is respected around the world for her Consciously Designed Music™.

A man sits in a darkened office with his feet up on his desk and laptop on his knees. One hand is on the keyboard, the other is above his head in a gesture of tired focus.

Maintaining focus on creative tasks isn’t a single state. Many parts of our brains work together to reach optimum creativity and, for many, the right ambient noise can support the flow of ideas.

She and collaborators compose pieces with purpose, the most famous of which was Weightless with British ambient band Marconi Union. The track, released in 2011, was measured by neuroscientists and reportedly reduces anxiety in listeners by up to 65%. It uses harmonies, rhythms and basslines to slow listeners’ heart rates, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Since its release it has had over 85 million listens on Spotify and, unsurprisingly, resurged into the public consciousness during the pandemic.

AutoFocus, Lyz’s latest project with producer Jimmy Day, has been crafted specifically for the challenges of the visionary mind at work. A soundtrack for an artist at the ‘creative coalface’, if you will. Editing photographs, writing, drawing – the kind of tasks that engage us both physically and mentally. Lyz describes the playlist as “undulating”, taking the listener on a subconscious but fluid journey through a period of creative focus, emulating in audio the ideal but changing operations of the brain.

Of course, this sounds wildly abstract until you understand just exactly how that ‘rollercoaster’ effect works. Essentially, our creativity is the result of fundamentally different brain regions working together. The pre-frontal cortex looks after your cognitive control network, which is the area responsible for executive functions, such as planning and problem solving. While the default mode network (a combination of several different parts of the brain, including those governing memory, conceptual knowledge, theory of mind and spatial navigation) is most active during mind-wandering or daydreaming – Lyz’s ‘screensaver mode’.

It’s said that Isaac Newton discovered gravity relaxing under an apple tree. Einstein would apparently meditate, and his ideas and theories would come. There's a lot to be said for just allowing the creativity to bubble up.”

With this in mind, Lyz and Jimmy’s playlist has been structured to uplift and stimulate, while also promoting focus and encouraging gentle mindfulness. It consists of seven tracks, which “you can take as a whole journey or adjust the pieces to your own specific workflow,” explains Lyz. “We [Lyz and Jimmy] know what it's like when we're trying to force a creative process, so this piece ebbs and flows to create cognitive flexibility. There are drifty low ambient pieces and slightly more structured pieces.” She explains the purpose and design of each track:

Uplift – “At 110 beats per minute, this gets you ready to work – into the space.”

Particle – “A very uplifting, higher tempo track with rousing chords to energise you for the task in hand.”

Focus – “This was born from research on what people actually use to focus. It has no lyrics, which can be distracting, but is around 90bpm and much in a major key, so feels uplifting but at the same time quite ambient.”

Breath – “This continues the instrumental, but with a bit more energy and the beat comes in again.”

Pause – “This is the ‘brain break’ piece, which is consciously designed to train your system to into that more meditative state. It’s about eight minutes long and the rhythms lead you to relaxation. It's so important to allow this process to take place naturally without any guilt of feeling ‘lazy’.”

Painter – “A chilled out recovery from the ‘brain break’ that was composed to reflect the act of creating.”

Stargazer – “A grounding, energetic piece with an enjoyable beat of around 65bm to complete the journey.”

AutoFocus has been specifically composed to be played through the Canon Light & Speaker ML-A, so that the sounds fill your space as you work and the light in your workspace can be adjusted to accompany the mood of the moment. But what has become clear in its creation is that music is not just an accompaniment or background noise but can be an integral part of the creative process. It can modulate our levels of brain arousal and help to create an environment where focus can flourish. But it can also simply lift our mood and bring enjoyment which, after all, is precisely what we want when we are settling down to be at our most creative.

Listen to AutoFocus.