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Why more music might be coming into our workplaces

Several soundscape artists, who have previously made a good living designing atmospheric sound curtains for hotels, restaurants, and clothing stores, have seen the professional workplace as a new market.

Much is about bringing life and warmth into the half-empty hybrid workplace. And why not use music, the oldest trick in the book?

Tailored ambient

Michael Vettraino, founder of the London-based music consultancy MAV music, tells in the article “Does music help us work better?” by Zaria Gorvett from March 2020 that his company has helped introduce background music to several offices. While their focus is on providing customized playlists to restaurants, casinos and hotels, they have recently broadened the playing field to also deliver to offices, many of which are introducing music for the first time. MAV are always careful to consider the demographics of their audience – their age, etc. – and adapt the music to how they’re likely to feel at different times of the day.

SonatSounds, a leading Spanish background music designer with fifteen years of experience, further ups the charm with the following innovation promise to the new customer group: “Almost 9 out of 10 workers in Spain say that music makes them more productive in their jobs. (Without offering a reference, by the way. Ed.) Employees who work with background music perform their tasks more efficiently than those who work in silence. This even reduces work breaks and creates a pleasant working environment.”

Christian Grosen, chief designer at the Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra, says in the article “Your hybrid workplace probably needs ambient music” from June 2021 that he has used the same strategy to animate his workplace: Grab a speaker and play some music! The Danish-born designer wants to challenge the notion that corporate offices should be “library-like” focus zones. Rather, he believes it's the buzz of activity that will eventually pull people out of their homework
bubbles. On days when few employees show up, in his view, a bit of well-chosen background music can work miracles in terms of making a place seem alive. “When you’re in an office that’s really quiet, even the slightest sound becomes really annoying,” explains Grosen. “Music provides background sounds that break the deafening silence.”

Not a new invention

Designing music as a productivity booster in workplaces is not a new invention either. On 23 rd of June 1940, the BBC launched its “Music While You Work” programme. The world was at war and in the weeks leading up to the launch more than 10,000 British soldiers had been captured in Normandy. The aim of the programme, which was developed and launched at the initiative of the British government, was that by sending live, up-beat music to industrial workplaces twice a day, it could help increase the pace of work and ensure the soldiers the ammunition that they so desperately needed. The campaign was a hit. In one of the countless letters from management at workplaces all over the country, one director describes that the meaning cannot be described at all, while another tells how in his company, they had estimated that the productivity of the employees increased during and a full hour after a music session, with 12.5 to 15 percent.

What do the researchers say about the power of music?

They don’t agree 100 percent, to say the least. But let’s try to start with how the brain perceives music and give the floor to someone who, without filling his mouth, has a certain prerequisite for speaking out, the Danish musician and brain researcher Peter Wuust.

“When we hear music, it happens quite unconsciously that some emotions are awakened, which sends some signals to our brains. For example, if you hear some music that you really like, then more dopamine enters our brains. Dopamine makes us feel a little high, elated, and happy, and motivates us to learn,” Peter Wuust can tell us, among other things, in the portrait article that Kristeligt Dagblad brought in connection with the neuroscientist and musician’s 60th birthday last November 14 year. In the same article, he also says that if you put a child in front of a speaker with music, it will automatically start moving in time with the music. Animals don’t. “We now know that it has to do with man’s ability to predict the future. What we have found is that the brain is constantly predicting when the next beat will fall. That is, movement to music is influenced by people’s ability to see into the future. Music contains rhythmic shifts, and when we listen, we try to stick to the rhythm. It keeps the brain on fire and teaches us to predict things correctly.” Then the scene is set. Music does something. There’s a reason we’ve been dancing and beating drums since the first humans came together on the prehistoric steppes.

Positive effects in relation to performance of routine work

But what does science say about using the power of music in the workplace? A study by neuroscientists Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel J. Levitin published in Cognitive Science Trends in 2013 shows that music is better at eliminating stress and anxiety than anti-anxiety drugs.
Transferred to a workplace context, it sounds quite promising.

Another study, published by JAMA, a leading international medical journal, found that surgeons who had to perform several routine tasks in the laboratory (outside of the actual surgery) showed improved performance when they worked while listening to music. Researchers concluded that they did a better job because listening to music alleviated some of the boredom that comes with performing the routine tasks. Transferred to a workplace context outside of medical surgery, where routine work may take up even more, this also sounds quite promising. And most runners, amateur cyclists, fitness practitioners and similar good people who regularly expose themselves to reasonably monotonous and reasonably hard basic training can also nod in recognition that the right music can help to maintain their motivation and perhaps even create flow.

The sounds of nature can do anything

A German research team at the Fraunhofer Institute with expertise in psychoacoustics demonstrated in 2014 that nature experiences can cause the brain to sort out other irritating inputs. For example, the researchers have carried out experiments to identify the best strategies for “sound masking” in an open office landscape. Here they found that although they introduced nature sounds in connection with their experiment increased the total decibels in the test room, the subjects perceived the room as quieter, since we tend to focus on the sound of nature as a shield for the other sounds. Since then, the sounds of nature have become part of the ambitious soundscapers’ repertoire.

Not ideal when we must concentrate and be creative

But where music can apparently be motivating and perhaps also productivity-promoting when we work with more routine tasks, new research suggests that music for work, regardless of genre, is a bad idea if you have a work task that requires focus and creativity.
In her interesting article “Here is the music you must avoid when you work”, published in Djøf Bladet in February this year, Matilde Leander describes how “researchers from the University of Gävle and the universities of Lancashire and Lancaster have investigated how people become influenced by background music while solving tasks that require creativity. The research group concludes that music impairs the ability to solve problems – even if it is songs that you love or you are used to listening to music while you work.” John Everett Marsh, one of the researchers behind the study, explains it like this: “There have been many studies that show that background noise reduces or disrupts our ability to use our inner speech. A good example is when someone tries to remember a phone number without being able to write it down. Then background noise disrupts our inner speech and impairs our ability to remember in the short term,” he says. John Everett Marsh and his colleagues have investigated the effect of listening to different genres of music with and without lyrics. The results point in one and the same direction: All types of music make it more difficult to solve tasks that require you to use your inner voice.

I should just add in closing that this author turned off “Womb” by Ida Gard ten minutes into the writing of this article. I got to focus on her rather thrilling text universe and forgot about my own thread. I can’t really do anything about our playlist looping as ambient background music, but luckily my hearing isn’t quite what it used to be.

Read danish article here: