Selecting Music for the Workplace

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”--Friedrich Nietzsche

Perhaps our most famous nihilist is not the best source of quotable material for an article on small business employee productivity, but one has to admit--he's right. Music has been shown time and again in scientific studies to be beneficial to human health and well-being. So why is it that so many small business employers still insist on a silent workplace where employees are subjected to the constant racket of unpleasant background noise?

Background Noise Pollution--A Productivity Killer

Adding to this problem is the misconception that open office designs promote teamwork and cooperation in small business environments, thus increasing productivity. This has since been proven wrong.

Contrary to what was originally believed, open offices have been shown to be very counter productive because of the noise factor. So much so that any increase in cooperation and teamwork is lost through decreased concentration and fatigue. People who work in open offices with background noise that disturbs concentration showed higher levels of tiredness or exhaustion--a productivity killer for sure.

Music as an Aid to Concentration

Music can help to mask background speech, which kills concentration in small business offices. According to studies, clear speech in the background is very distracting. But, masking the background speech helps workers to refocus their attention on their task. This can be done through white noise generators, nature sounds or music, and all methods are equally effective. But, music provides the added benefit of lifting spirits and energizing workers while getting their brains into Alpha mode, where they are at their most creative and effective (like here).

So, What Type of Music is Best?

Oh, that's easy! This depends largely on three different factors:

  • the type of task the person is engaged in,

  • how much verbal thinking is required and

  • what type of music your employees actually prefer

Let's elaborate on these points.

Type of Task

Repetitive tasks that don't require much higher thinking benefit from more mentally engaging music. Upbeat and lyrical songs tend to help people work faster and concentrate more on their task while alleviating boredom.

Non-repetitive but non-verbal tasks will benefit from music that is less lyrical so that the lyrics do not interfere with concentration.

Very Verbal Tasks

Tasks that require high levels of verbal concentration, such as writing, benefit more from completely non-verbal music. This is because trying to write something while lyrics are blasting in the background is much like trying to speak to a person while someone stands two feet away from you and talks over your conversation at full volume. This is why the infamous background muzak has become so popular in certain office settings. But muzak makers sometimes fail to take into account that it's also necessary for the listener to like the music in order for it to increase productivity.

Also important for this point, no matter what type of task is being performed, music must be familiar in order to improve productivity. Unfamiliar music can interfere with cognitive function, especially for tasks that require higher levels of thinking. People tend to concentrate on the tune as they are waiting to see what new direction the melody will take and decide whether they like it or not.

Personal Musical Preference

This is the hardest part of deciding what music to select for your small business. Depending on the size of your office, musical preferences can vary widely. Thus, as John Lydgate said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

The trick to solving this problem is to do a survey. Ask people what they like to hear. You can even rotate several different styles according to time of day. If your office requires high levels of concentration, ask for non-verbal examples as well. And don't assume that muzak, classical and jazz are the only non-verbal options. There are very popular and familiar non verbal songs in all genres, including classic rock, modern electronica and pop.

One Final Note

Listening to music that can be a source of workplace harassment might end up costing more in lawsuits that it saves in productivity. For instance, Novellus was forced to settle a harassment suit for $168,000 because one of its workers subjected an unwilling workmate to music that used a lot of racial epithets. But, as stated above, it's important for productivity that the music being played is something that the employees actually like. So, what if their preferred poison happens to be something that others would find distasteful? Allowing the use of headphones when possible would solve that problem completely.