Does Music Work in the Workplace?

Many employees agree it has a place, even if it’s a small one

By Lucy Chumbley Apr 23, 2015
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When she started teaching photography at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., adjunct faculty member Leta Dunham said the darkroom had traditionally been a place of tombstone silence.

So when Dunham suggested that her students play music as they developed their film, the outgoing photography teacher was taken off guard.

“She looked at me like, blasphemy!” Dunham said.

But a new day had dawned for the photography class.

“I asked the students, ‘What are you guys listening to?’ ” Dunham recalled, and soon the class was playing Toro y Moi on Pandora as they waited for their images to emerge.

“I love it, the students love it and no one has ever complained,” Dunham said. “The students need it in the darkroom to keep their momentum going, to keep their energy going and to produce better work.”

Lucas Monaco, manager of Crooked Beat Records in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, said he listens to music as he studies for his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at George Washington University. Music can be distracting for some, he said, but “for me, music is always playing.”

At the record store, staff take turns selecting the music, he said, noting that store founder and owner Bill Daly has a rule “that you cannot rain on anyone’s parade”—meaning everyone should keep an open mind about the musical tastes of others.

“But if there’s a staff of hundreds, maybe headphones are a better option,” Monaco acknowledged.

HR professional Anna-Maria Karlsson said there hasn’t really been a need for a formal policy on music at any of the large companies where she has worked.

At global biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, where she once worked in HR, people generally worked in either offices or laboratories, she said.

“People in labs have music on,” she said, while the offices are quieter spaces.

Karlsson now serves as HR business partner at Tetra Pak Packaging Solutions AB in Lund, Sweden, which has a Google-inspired workplace with a range of spaces for employees—from silent rooms to meeting rooms, from lounge areas to open spaces.

“You choose where you sit depending on what you do,” she said, adding that this type of environment can foster creativity and collaboration across departmental boundaries and represents a new way of thinking about work.

Karlsson said she has seen some employees in the open areas use headphones as a kind of visual signal that they are engaged in solitary work and do not want to be interrupted.

Some customers use headphones to play their own music at Perk! Coffee + Lunchbox in the Bon Air suburb of Richmond, Va., café owner Christophile Konstas said, but most opt to listen to the cafe’s selection.

“We try to keep it pretty well on background music,” she said. “It’s a cafe, and we don’t want to play the loud stuff. We want to keep it kind of chill.”

The morning begins softly with indie electronic, bossa nova or tropical music, she said, with maybe a bit of “acoustic folksy indie artist stuff” thrown in. “As the day progresses, we want to make it a little poppier.”

Konstas used to work at Plan 9 Music, an independent record store in Richmond, and her business partner, Jay Metzler, used to work at Tower Records.

“We both have record store experience,” she said, adding that that background helps her and Metzler choose appropriate music for the cafe.

The type of music played at a workplace matters, as certain styles of music, and lyrics in particular, can be intrusive, Dunham said.

“You almost need international music, music that is unfamiliar,” she said.

Music is not part of the daily routine for Lulit Million, a Washington, D.C.-based law account manager for Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass media and information firm.

Million works mostly from home, going into the office for meetings or meeting with clients at “buttoned-up and proper” corporate law firms, which are by and large silent spaces, with the exception of the occasional television set to the news.

But it’s a completely different story at the annual sales meeting, she said.

“What they do to invigorate us or give us a little energy is [play] music,” she said. “There’s a ton of music. There has never been a meeting with no music.”

“In the evenings we do a lot of karaoke,” she said, noting that colleagues from around the country who don’t regularly interact in person really look forward to it.

“When your V.P. [vice president] is singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” it’s a way to break the ice,” she said.

For those who work in more traditional 9-to-5 settings, Crooked Beat Records’ Monaco said it’s all about monitoring the level of productivity when considering music in the workplace.

“Do it on a trial basis,” he suggested, recommending a soundtrack such as Brian Eno’s Ambient series, which he describes as “wordless music, repetitive patterns, really gorgeous lush arrangements that could serve as something pleasant to listen to and help you work in most situations.”

Lucy Chumbley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Related SHRM Article

Working to the Beat, HR Magazine, April 2008

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