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Music in work, turn it up or turn it off?

December 18, 2018

Workplace Culture

I was sat drinking coffee in the co-working space the other day, staring out of the window, idly watching the reflection of the sunlight on the river outside. Miles away. At least, I wish I was. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of someone coming in carrying a bag from a record store. He’d been on a vinyl shopping trip on his way in. The sight of this distracted my from my distraction, stirring and spiking my interest. I can’t help myself. I had to ask what he’d bought.

I do this all the time to total strangers on the train or in coffee shops. I NEED to know what they’ve bought. It’s part curiosity, and part fear of missing out on something new that I haven’t heard. For me, there’s nothing better than finding new music.

Anyway, it turns out he’d bought a second hand version of Iggy Pop’s classic Lust For Life, a personal favourite of mine, and a Foals album. Meh! To me, Foals are a bargain basement Coldplay. And I don’t mean that as a compliment to either band. So we strike up a conversation about music. He has a dedicated office on the next floor up and a turntable, so we head upstairs. He’s a web developer, and by the sights of things, music is important to him. He tells me he finds it impossible to work without music. I couldn’t agree more. I need it to work, to rest, and to play.

I’ve got is easy as a freelancer too. I just put my headphones on - no buds here, not with my giant ears - and away I go. I have different playlists for different jobs too. If I'm just on admin, invoicing, dumping stuff onto drives or ploughing through emails, then the volume goes up as I get stuck in. It actually tends to help with these tasks. If I’m doing something more creative, its usually instrumental, modern composers, soundscapes, classical that kind of thing. On Friday afternoons, I just listen to whatever I want, and loud too. I’m winding down, thinking of a cool beer after I finish and a couple of days to myself. Either way, it’s always there. My day is defined by playlist. That's just how it works with me.

And my new friend upstairs here is the same. In fact, we got on so well, I ended up taking him on as a client, and doing some writing for him. Music pulled us together. Not music by Foals though. Believe me, that will never happen.

All this got me thinking. I have friends who can think of nothing worse than working in an office with music playing. They don’t believe it helps their productivity, they don’t think it gives them clearer focus on their tasks, or simply that it keeps the office calm. There’s science behind this though. Music’s a powerful tool, when it’s used in the right way.

More of us listen to music than ever before. It’s more available, and accessible in a way we’ve never known. For many, it’s become a constant presence. A source of comfort and inspiration. It’s the universal language: the life force. What about music in work though? Is it really productive to listen to music while we work? You could say it depends on the music and the work, I guess, and you’d be right. But in an age where more and more of us work at computers, leading a sedentary work life, focused on one thing at a time, music helps. It reduces the yawn factor, at least for some of us.

Back in the distant and dark days of our history, music was used to rally the troops before a battle, to get them ready for the fight, ready for action. Wars were waged to the sound of drums, pipes and trumpets playing a live soundtrack, and every army, every regiment had its own band. There’s nothing like a cheery tune with a good beat to help you engage in a little deadly hand-to-hand combat in the morning, after all.

The science behind this is interesting. When we’re listening to music, and enjoying it, we’re engaged in an emotional contact with it, it’s fired directly into our auditory cortex, and it’s power is held in the way it changes us. And that's some serious power. It can energise and soothe us, often at the same time. It brings the Dopamine hit we need. The ‘universal language’ is intangible and invisible, but instant and familiar. And we’ve never had so much access to so much music. We’ve never listened to as much music as we do now.

But does it help with productivity? Does it help us work better? Really? Or is it a placebo, making us believe in its magical quality for mood change? Well, the truth is, of course, never clear. The reality is that it’s a bit of both. And don’t we just love it when the science argues with itself?

A recent study at the University of Central Lancashire suggested that the idea that music can be used as an aid to productivity was false. The results contend that the brain only focuses on one job at a time, and struggles to split itself to more than one task. Of course, as with everything, there’s no shortage of data to suggest the opposite. There are the ancient, possibly apocryphal tales of the post war industrialisation of Japan, where newly mechanised factories would play loud music all day, increasing the tempo over the course of the shift, to energise the workforce and make them work faster.

Some research seems to suggest that listening to music while carrying out repetitive tasks can lead to a more efficient and productive result, however our ability to take on new information or do more focused work our ability to learn is considerably hampered when music is playing. And we all know that working in a disruptive environment, such as a busy office space, can be avoided with the simple help of a pair of headphones and something we enjoy listening to.

And here's where the waters get extra muddy. Research carried out by Prof. Teresa Lesiuk, of the music therapy programme at the University of Miami, found that the subject is governed by our own tastes. Simply that when we listen to music we like, we feel better, and therefore we work better. There's that Dopamine rush again. We’re less likely to make wrong or hasty decisions. But when we’re stressed and less relaxed, our judgement can suffer and mistakes happen.

More research from Cambridge Sound Management suggests that when working, we react badly to music with lyrics, as words, rather than the music, become the distraction, and slow our engagement in the task. A Canadian study, meanwhile, found that we perform better in IQ tests while listening to uptempo music, while one carried out by BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore suggests that we’re likely to reach optimum relaxation in carrying out tasks when listening to music at 60 beats a minute, which is anything but uptempo.

So it seems that the research is as varied as our tastes in music. We know what works for us, though. We know what we like, and how we feel when we listen to music, so using music as a tool for productivity can definitely be good for us.

As long as it's not Foals, obviously.

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