All posts, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, News & events, Research

Music and the workplace

On November 8th and 15th 2019 Dr Hilary Moss and Jessica O’Donoghue of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance will be contributing to the RTE Lyric FM programme Music and the Mind. The programme on 8th November will focus on the health and well-being aspects of music in the workplace. Here, Hilary Moss tells of the research behind this programme.

Music has been used at work throughout history and in many contexts. For example, bagpipes, drums and chants were used to lead soldiers into battle and negro spirituals were songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery. This stolen race was deprived of their languages, families, and cultures; yet, their masters could not take away their music and they sang while they toiled  to communicate safely with one another, express their faith but also to get through a long monotonous working day. In the 1930s in particular, recorded music was used in factories to improve productivity and reduce boredom and fatigue.

In modern times there has been a huge development of research within marketing and psychology about how music can affect consumer spending. For example, one study showed that playing classical music in an off license induces increased purchases of wine, while rock music saw beer sales increase! The swimmer Michael Phelps was famously noted listening to headphones and looking angry prior to race  – presumably using music as a preparation aid for optimal performance.

Increasing access to listening technologies (MP3 players and digital file formats) and the internet has contributed to a new era of listening to music in offices, where many employees listen to music through computers and personal listening devices. However, there is no specific evidence that music listening improves productivity and as always music listening comes down to personal preference and personality.

So what benefits does music listening have in the workplace?

Music at work can contribute to relaxation by channelling your stress and negative emotions, and can remind you of not being at work. It can also provide a mini-break from being mentally active and allow you rest and recover. In this sense, music can create a sense of well-being in offices by putting employees in a good mood.

Music can aid your concentration by suppressing distractions around the office. Some people experience these effects when they do simpler tasks, but it could also help when doing more complex work. You can control your soundscape in the office and replace external interruptions with sounds of your choice. Music affects mood and can be inspirational; it can encourage thoughts and motivate you. It can act as a stress reliever and can provide a sense of company when your working space is too quiet or empty.

Finally, music can block out distractions – it gives you more control over your environment and blocks out surrounding noise from the environment or colleague. However, a word of caution here, it is very important to consider that headphone use in offices can also be isolating, which might be a negative for management in creating a community atmosphere.

There is very little research on how managers of organisations might use music to best effect in workplaces. However, in some workplaces music listening offers workers a sense of control over their work environment and in others it is seen as a gift – we give you music in return for greater productivity. However, retail employees are some of the biggest sufferers – think of Christmas music throughout November and December in shops. Very little research on the mental health of employees through music choices.  

It is important to remember that music can be used as torture – it was used in Guantanamo bay and just think of Christmas music in the retail industry!

Research to explore whether music can be used to enhance objective productivity is limited o and virtually nonexistent. The most common thought is that music can be stimulating for repetitive work and lift mood of employees. No definite evidence to suggest listening to music improves our performance. 

As with all music and well-being areas, CHOICE and CONTROL of music is critical. There is no particular music better than another for increasing productivity, concentration or memory recall. Use music if it helps you study or work but if it becomes another distraction it is better not to. When workers do not have control over music this is likely to be a cause of stress. Like many other areas of music, health and well-being, it really depends on the individual and what works for you. The question remains, is there sufficient evidence that music influences people’s productivity and well-being at work, and if so, do we maybe need to plan around it more proactively rather than just leaving people to stick on whichever tunes they fancy?

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