Should You Play Music in the Office? Feat. The Perfect Playlist

By: Emma Hickey

Music is a surefire way to set the tone of, well, anything. It’s the reason Halloween was such a scary movie, the reason why 4th of July fireworks are always more dramatic with the 1812 Overture playing in the background, and the reason why it seems like every dentist’s office plays unassuming easy listening tunes. Music affects the tone of an office, too, in both positive and negative ways. Does it help with focus or does it distract? Does it create a fun atmosphere or does it create a grating one? Does it bring people together or divide them? And, if you’re going to play music at all, what kind of music should you play? Luckily, science has already tackled some of these questions. While the attitudes of people in your workplace will ultimately determine your office’s stance on music, it doesn’t hurt to start with the facts.

Way back in 1972, the scientific journal Applied Ergonomics published a study by J.G.Fox and E.D Embrey in which they found that “the results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can occur from the use of music in industry. The studies show that music is effective in raising efficiency in this type of work even when in competition with the unfavourable conditions produced by machine noise.” The type of work they’re referring to here is factory work--their research centered primarily around industrial workers. A separate study found that 73% of warehouse workers felt they were more productive when listening to background music. The scope of this research is limited to workers who perform repetitive tasks, but the results are overwhelming–for monotonous tasks, music improves efficiency and concentration.

For more complicated tasks, it’s true that music can be a distraction. Listening to music while working is considered multitasking, and despite our best efforts, human aren’t built to multi-task. Paul Atchley, an associate professor of cognitive psychology, reported in the Harvard Business Review that your efficiency can drop by as much as 40% when you’re multitasking. Another study by Cambridge Sound Management found that nothing distracts humans as much as speech, meaning songs with lyrics can be significantly distracting to a team. Overall, though, music is thought to be an aid to concentration rather than a detraction. Listening to just 30 minutes of music can help reset your mind and allow you to focus more clearly for the rest of the day. Not to mention, it makes everything more fun.

The atmosphere that music creates in the office is significant. It lends an air of levity to the room. It makes everyone feel happier and can drive office culture in a positive way—as long as it’s not music deemed “annoying.” Music is not a one-size fits all art form. The style of music now referred to as Muzak, for example, was invented during World War I with the express purpose of being background music. Muzak the company was created in 1932 and started out by providing its lightly jazz and classical tunes as background music for stores, restaurants and office buildings. Today, muzak is widely derided. People scoff at the so-called elevator music. Muzak was literally invented to be the perfect solution for background noise to keep employees happy and increase productivity, and still it doesn’t align with everyone’s tastes. It’s hard to pick tunes that a whole office can agree on, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what the music is for it to positively affect the office atmosphere.

Music brings people together. It’s a cliche, but it’s also true. Listening to music as a group will help eliminate “headphone culture,” in which everyone isolates themselves from each other by wearing headphones and keeping to themselves. It also bring people together in a way that’s scientifically supported. An article published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior by Kevin M. Kniffin, Jubo Yan, Brian Wansink and William D Schulze found, through a series of studies, “that happy music significantly and positively influences cooperative behavior.” The researchers define “happy music” as any song that is rhythmic. They also found that familiar songs, regardless of the genre, make listeners happy. The researchers played “Yellow Submarine, ”Walking on Sunshine,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” and the theme song from “Happy Days” while testing their hypothesis, and found that those songs did indeed increase collaboration among the team. So the next time one person in your office wants to listen to death metal, while another wants to listen to gangster rap, and another wants to listen to the latest teeny bopper hit, keep in mind that even though on the surface it may seem music is dividing your team, it isn’t. Happy music improves teamwork.

Once you’ve landed on the side of music, it’s time to create the perfect office playlist. No playlist will please everyone, of course, by picking a selection of happy, familiar and upbeat songs, you can help keep your team humming--in every sense of the word. 

Here are some suggestions to get you started: 

William Tell Overture
A solid classical song that’s doesn’t have any lyrics, so as not to distract, and is endlessly familiar to anyone who has seen The Lone Ranger or that amusement park episode of The Brady Bunch. Not only will it make your team happy, it will make them all want to run a marathon.

Yellow Submarine by The Beatles
If it was good enough for the Cornell research study, then it’s good enough for you!

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough by Michael Jackson
Is there anything more upbeat than a disco-funk song, or anything more familiar than Michael Jackson?

9 to 5 by Dolly Parton
Every playlist needs a song that satisfies the country fans and this one has the added benefit of being both the perfect meta workplace song and performed by Dolly Parton, ray of sunshine incarnate. 

I Think We’re Alone Now by Tiffany
It doesn’t have to be good music to lift spirits. I defy your team not to dance to this 1987 classic.

Hypnotize by The Notorious B.I.G
Is it NSFW? Depends on where you work, but the combination of rhythm, nostalgia and wistfulness for a life cut short will have your team focusing in reverent focus. 

Independent Woman, Pt. 1 by Destiny’s Child
This song is rife with the most perfect harmonies AND rife with messages of empowerment. Not only will it make your team work together, it may just make inspire them to dismantle the patriarchy. 

Firework by Katy Perry
A modern classic. 

Despacito by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber
And a modern banger, for dance breaks after which everyone will recenter, focus, and get to work.

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