Listening to Music at Work
A different beat
“To visit a modern office place is to walk into a room with a dozen songs playing simultaneously but to hear none of them,” Derek Thompson once wrote.
Indeed, whether you’re part of the post-cubicle corporate world or a digital nomad working out of a coffee shop, there’s a good chance you’re wearing headphones right now. It has never been easier to tune in to your own customized soundtrack—or more necessary to tune out your annoying coworkers or coffee-shop denizens.
But not all music is created equal, especially when there’s work to be done. How should you choose the best office soundtrack for a given task? Which songs will help you get energized, focused, or creative—or even just carry you through a very long day? Listen up.
24%: Decrease in errors made at discount-code site PromotionCode after music was introduced to the office
27: Years the BBC ran its Music While You Work show
60%: Respondents in one survey who mentioned “relaxation” as a reason they listened to music at work
40%: Proportion who mentioned “concentration”
7%: Proportion who mentioned “enjoyment”
63%: Share of doctors and nurses who listen to music in the operating room
49%: Percent of doctors who listen to rock in the OR
115: Major-league baseball players who use reggaeton as their at-bat music
Should I play or should I go
Research shows that music goes best with repetitive tasks that require focus but little higher-level cognition. A landmark 1972 studyin Applied Ergonomics found that factory workers performed at a higher level when upbeat, happy tunes were played in the background.
But listening to music is unquestionably multitasking. Any cognitive resources that your brain expends—on understanding lyrics, processing emotions that are triggered by a song, or remembering where you were when you first heard it—won’t be available to help you work.
The 1972 study found that the benefits of music disappeared when it was constantly played. And sometimes your brain just needs all the cognitive resources it can get. One 1989 paper wryly noted that “complex managerial tasks are probably best performed in silence.”
1891: French engineer Ernest Mercadier receives a patent for the first ever in-ear headphones.
1910: Nathaniel Baldwin sends his design for the first modern headphones to the US Navy.
1914: Dr. Evan O’Neill Kane brings a gramophone into his operating room, inaugurating a now-common practice.
1953: The White House is wired for Muzak.
1958: John Koss invents the first pair of stereo headphones, designed to demonstrate a portable phonograph player.
1970: Sony introduces the Walkman portable cassette player.
1981: Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” hits #1 on the country charts.
2001: Apple’s iPod is launched.
Work songs: your finest hour
Before headphones, before Muzak, workers had to make their own music. Here’s a sampler.
Sea Shanties: How important were these to shipping? “The saying in maritime historical circles is that a good chanteyman is worsth ten sailors on a line.”
Waulking Songs: “Waulking” was the intensive and repetitive process of thickening tweed, which was made easier with a group, and easier still by coordinating in an a capella song.
Kulning: A Scandinavian herding call that, like yodeling, uses high tones to carry across the landscape.
The Song of the Volga Boatmen: That song that goes “yo, heave-ho”? It’s got a long history, both august and ridiculous.
Lullabies: Child-rearing is a form of labor, and getting a child to sleep is probably the most important part of it.
Lectores: Not singers, but readers—long before audiobooks and podcasts made repetitive labor a bit easier to deal with, Cuban cigar-factory workers were listening to prose, and the tradition is still going.
“It’s not just that headphones carve privacy out of public spaces. It is also that music causes us to relax and reflect and pause. The outcome of relaxation, reflection, and pausing won’t be captured in minute-to-minute productivity metrics. In moments of extreme focus, our attention beams outward, toward the problem, rather than inward, toward the insights.”
There are no words
The downside of listening to music at work is that it places demands on your attention. The upside is it can make you feel more energetic and improve your mood. It’s also useful to drown out distracting background noises. The trick is to choose your music carefully, and match your tunes to the task.
For a cognitive boost, pick music that doesn’t have lyrics, especially if your task is word-related. Your brain’s language centers can’t help but decipher the words you’re hearing, which makes it much harder to concentrate on, say, composing an email. You can also try something in a language that you don’t understand—like the invented “hopelandic” language invented by the band Sigur Rós.
Essential qualities for office tunes
Your brain is a prediction machine, making an endless series of guesses about what’s going to happen next. When it comes to music at work, you don’t want your brain to spend cognitive resources predicting what it’s about to hear.
Listening to constant, relatively unchanging music—songs that don’t have a lot of emotional peaks and valleys, or changes in mood—has been shown to enhance some simple cognitive skills. Other research has shown that “low-information-load” music, simple tunes without a lot of complexity, have the strongest positive effect.
(For instance, check out the steady, phased repetitions of “Music for Airports 1/1” by Brian Eno.)
Some studies suggest that major-key music (a song that sounds more happy than sad) makes time seem to pass more slowly. Whether that’s a good thing depends on you.
In 1964, the Smithsonian’s Folkways record label released Sounds of the Office, which consists of brief recordings of workplace devices like an addressograph and an adding machine. (Also available from Folkways: Sounds of the Junkyard and Sounds of Medicine.)
What sounds right for the office?
Music can be distracting at work—but so can half-heard conversations at an open office. Acousticians and office-furniture titans like Steelcase are trying to figure out how to mitigate the problem; possibilities include felt cones of silence hanging from the ceiling, or a “retroreflective ceiling” that “reflects sound back toward the speaker, making the person sound louder to him or herself.” Meanwhile, sales of ambient noise are up, opening up another possibility for your open office.
It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas
One of the banes of retail work is the repetitive soundtrack of the holiday season, and it can even spark stress as a reminder that the mentally complex and sometimes emotionally fraught process of gift-buying is upon us. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times surveyed major US retailers to find out when they started their seasonal playlists, and encountered a wide range. Best Buy kicked it off over a month before Thanksgiving, while the most common date was the day after. Only one respondent held off until December started.
The granddaddy of office music is the reviled yet ever-present Muzak. Or at least it was ever-present. Where’d it go?