Should you ever use music at work?

music-workNoise in the office has been an ongoing bone of contention for as long as open plan offices have been the norm.  Indeed, studies have found that silence is the best when we’re trying to be creative.

Over and above the typical office chatter however, there are other noises competing for our attention.  For instance, many offices install a deliberate form of white noise to try and limit the spread of normal office noises.  Studies have suggested that our performance at work can be improved significantly if this white noise is replaced with the noise of a mountain stream.

The sound of music

Whilst the sound of the hills might be good for our wellbeing at work, a recent study set out to explore whether actual music might be a good or bad influence on our productivity.

The study, from researchers at Cornell University, consisted of two experiments that found that music can make us more cooperative with our colleagues when we’re working together in a team.

Participants were divided into teams of three, with each person given a number of opportunities to either contribute to the team (via donating tokens to the collective) or work for themselves (via keeping those tokens for personal use).

Music was played in the background as the participants went about their task.  When the performances were analyzed, it emerged that happy tunes, such as the Happy Days theme song, resulted in greater collective behavior.

By contrast, when gloomier tunes, such as heavy metal, were played, people were more likely to keep the tokens to themselves.  It emerged that the happy tunes would see as much as a 30% increase in team contributions than the other form of music.

Happy days

So why does this occur?  The authors believe the cheery music triggers something in us that makes us think of the collective and contribute to its success.

“Music is a pervasive part of much of our daily lives, whether we consciously notice it or not,” they say. “Music might melt into the background in places like supermarkets or gyms and other times it’s very prominent like places of worship or presidential nominating conventions. Our results show that people seem more likely to get into sync with each other if they’re listening to music that has a steady beat to it.”

Suffice to say, a lot of employees listen to music at work, but this is typically confined to their own personal headphones.  Does this finding mean that music should be a constant throughout the workplace?

I’m not entirely sure, and there are certainly instances where it may be useful, just as there are instances where peace and quiet are crucial.  The study does remind us however that it could be an effective, not to mention cheap, way of fostering team spirit at work.

“Lots of employers spend significant sums of time and money on off-site teambuilding exercises to build cooperation among employees. Our research points to the office sound system as a channel that has been underappreciated as a way to inspire cooperation among co-workers,” the authors conclude.

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