Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. —Plato
When I first graduated college and entered the adult office environment, the work environment tended to be pretty damn quiet. Only when I went down to the press room, where the large Heidelberg machines cranked out newspapers with deafening volume, was there much noise. Upstairs, teletype machines had been moved to the corner and rarely emitted their machine-gun clatter as even then computers had already started taking over the job of distributing wire news. While I’m not aware of any explicit rule against music, it just wasn’t done.
Now, walk into almost any office and one is likely to find music playing. In some instances, it can even be overwhelming. Indianapolis-based Simon malls (there’s one near you) pipes music both inside and outside their facilities during shopping hours. Once quiet offices often have corporately approved playlists and there’s rarely a cubicle dweller that doesn’t pop in their ear buds before turning on the computer for the day’s work. Music is pervasive in our society, no matter where one is.
The question asked recently is whether all this music is actually helping our productivity, or is it noise providing a distraction?
Those of us who are most musically oriented, find the answer obvious: of course, music helps our productivity! I’m listening to a playlist now and I cannot imagine sitting here doing most anything without music playing in my face. Not too many people would disagree, but should someone happen to walk through the door about the same time Parliament Funkadelic (who’s in town tonight) brings down the funk, you might just find me up moving around, which those boss-like people might consider unproductive. Some folks are no fun at all.
A study from Applied Ergonomics says yes, music is a consistent aid to productivity, even in manufacturing situations where the sounds of machines might competing for sound attention. The research finds:
A series of experiments has investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry.
That research has had some challenge, though. Canadian researcher Theresa Lesiuk published research showing that:
… positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed. Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working. Evidence is provided of the presence of a learning curve in the use of music for positive mood alteration.
In other words, music itself may not necessarily help productivity. Rather, the right music puts one in a better mood so that we are more inclined to work better and focus longer than we might with no music or, worse yet, with music we expressly do not like. If we are forced to listen to Kanye West all day, for example, our productivity might plummet as we spend far too much time in the restroom throwing up. Whereas, with a reasonable mix of artists, our mood is likely to improve to the point we really don’t mind the fact that what we’ve been asked to do makes absolutely no sense at all.
So what, then, should we choose for work music that will keep us focused and on task? A couple of different studies come into play here. Research just last year published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that the music needs to be at a moderate level for us to maintain creativity and pay attention to what we’re doing. Anything too loud, thumping base, screeching treble, or with too fast a rhythm is distracting and can actually interrupt the creative process. That’s not exactly what we want to hear, but if we look at the matter practically we have to admit that it’s true. If the music makes us want to stop what we’re doing, it’s not helping.
Second, the Acoustical Society of America found that pure ambient noise is actually the best at helping us focus and aiding in creativity. If we’re mouthing along with the lyrics, or even worse, standing in our office chairs singing along, we’re not as focused on our work. Ambient noise can be quite musical, but that steady, consistent, quiet sound is what’s going to help us to be more productive and actually get things done.
What, then, should be pumping through our ear buds as we try to make it through the rest of this Friday? According to one fairly specific study, Baroque music is your best bet. I would tend to challenge those findings, though, as some elements from the baroque period can be rather tumultuous and its minor-oriented tonalities could actually put a person in a bad mood. The ambient nature of Electronica is more likely to be a better option, as long as you’re not a pure acoustic snob. Electronica offers more subtle soundscapes that aren’t likely to surprise or overwhelm at any given point.
Interestingly enough, video game soundtracks and some movie soundtracks can be really helpful. I have a list of favorite soundtracks that do a very good job of keeping me focused on editing when I’m feeling rather tired and run down. I also keep a playlist of quiet standards nearby when I’m working on a large set of images that need simple, consistent processing. Even though the songs have lyrics, they’re not of a nature that I’m likely to get caught up singing along. I can focus on what I’m doing.
Everyone likes music and it makes sense that we would want to listen to something while we’re working, especially on Friday afternoons where the sun is just begging you to come out and play. What we listen to matters, though. Take a look at your playlists and maybe consider making some adjustments to help you make your work more productive.