In the 90s I worked in an office where everyone was constantly on the phone. People smoked and if you left your desk, you were likely to return to find your coffee full of cigarette butts. The idea of music in such an environment was unthinkable; it would have caused fights.
Today, on the move, people seem to be hermetically sealed in a bubble of music. iPods, phones, huge comedy earphones; they travel around listening to what they want, when they want and oblivious to the outside world. But what about when they are actually at work?
I was at the dentists last week and hearing Gangnam Style on the radio was far more distressing than the root canal work I was suffering. Surgeons traditionally listen to classical music when operating, to relax them and show off to the nurses, but not everyone finds music at work relaxing.
Alan Dunachie, director of operations at the Economist Group, thinks it might be a generational thing, saying: “When I was at university I couldn’t study with music on, but people who did, seem happy to have music on in the background at work, even if they have to wear headphones.”
Ellis Rich, chairman of PRS for Music, thinks music has a role to play when it comes to staff motivation and customer retention. He says: “Music is a key element; it creates a positive atmosphere, enhances the mood and influences spending behaviour.”
80% of those asked said their employer allowed music in the workplace, but the jury is out on whether it helps or hinders performance. Stacey Dobbs, Adrian Furnham and Alastair McClelland, tested 100 school children to see whether tasks that demanded focus were negatively impacted by music.
Using two different soundtracks, one of nature’s sounds, the other popular music, they discovered the pupils with music in their ears performed poorly when it came to tasks requiring abstract reasoning. However, extroverted people suffered less from the din of the music than their introverted peers. Indeed, the most extroverted performed equally, regardless of the level of background noise.
These findings were replicated in tests on cognitive ability and verbal reasoning; interestingly they found that general noise (not musical), caused the most suffering.
So, some people find music stimulating, whereas others find it hard to concentrate. Many like background chatter or radio and find the oppressive silence of a library stifling to creativity. Professor Ravi Mehta, of the University of Illinois, studies the way the brain processes information against different levels of background noise and says the noise needs to be at the right level, about 70 decibels (about the same as a car driving past).
He calls it the ‘Goldilocks Principle’. “Not enough noise and the mind tends to have little or no stimulation; too much and the distractions are too great. A moderate level of noise not only enhances creative problem solving, but also leads to a greater adoption of innovative products in certain settings.”
“The sweet spot is around 70 decibels; I call it the Goldilock’s Principle, because the middle is just right. Too loud and the noise starts to negatively affect creativity, but a level of distraction can help you think ‘outside the box.’”
So, someone who works on their own might find that they perform better in a relatively busy coffee shop, rather than working in silence at home or in the office.
Vincent Paciariello is an account executive at DM Public Relations and is a fan of online radio stations at work. He says: “I would strongly recommend everyone listen to music at work, if possible. It really lightens up the day and makes the time go by a bit faster.”
Pepe Serrano, of ExecutiveSurf, agrees. He is the unofficial office DJ, as he has inherited the desk with the speakers. He says he uses different stations, but likes Spotify Lists, Soma FM and Music Machine. He says: “They all have ads, but I don’t play it loud enough for these to become intrusive.”
I ask him if he ever has complaints from people who maybe don’t want any music playing or actually don’t like his taste in music. His answer is blunt; “Maybe, but I don’t care, I’m the DJ.”
His colleague, Ignacio Villarrubia adds: “I like the music to be cranked up a bit on Fridays, particularly in the afternoon, so it gets you in the mood for the weekend.”
Listening to music at work can be more than just fun for some people. According to Peter Quily, adult Attention Deficit Disorder coach, music can have a physiological effect on his patients who suffer from adult ADD. According to Quily, listening to music boosts the levels of neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical that can help people focus.
Some of Quily’s clients listen to music when they can’t focus or when they’re performing a task they find boring. People who have ADHD often have dopamine levels that are low or quickly used up, and the music is a welcome help.
For some of his clients, music is just another distraction that they don’t need. And, while many workers can’t imagine a day without music, plenty of people, such as Jay Levitt, prefer to leave the tunes outside of work hours.
“I took a break from my technology career to study music production at Berkley,” Levitt says. “Now, when I’m working, I can’t have any music playing at all; I’ll get distracted because the bass player’s out of tune, and I wonder which microphone they used on the singer.”
Alex Greenwood of EventPros, a communications and events services company, is a huge music fan, whose workday has a constant soundtrack in the background. He listens to his iPod, which has playlists for various times of day and different activities.
“I find music to be a great motivator at work,” Greenwood says. “It makes a slow day go faster and often really does help me in the creative process.”
For research, he chooses listens to jazz, such as Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius. When he wants to tap into his creative side, he relies on what he refers to as “mature pop”, which includes artists like Shawn Colvin and Colin Hay among others.
In most offices it looks slightly antisocial to wear your headphones and tune out of the general ambience of working life, so having an office DJ who respects music levels is probably a good idea.
Whatever your solution to the issue of music at work, make sure you never sing along and perhaps try what we do at ExecutiveSurf headquarters; hire a string quartet on Friday afternoons and shout out your requests to them.