Does music help us work better? It depends

Does music help us work better? It depends

The debate over whether we should be allowed to rock out at our desks has been raging for decades. Now science is providing some answers – and they’re not what you think .

The weapon was initiated at precisely 10:30 in the morning. It was 23 June 1940 and World War Two was in full swing. The Germans had already invaded vast swathes of continental Europe; in the preceding weeks, 10,000 British troops had been captured in Normandy .

Now the BBC had been asked to get involved. Their powerful intervention was completely invisible, yet capable of infiltrating the minds of thousands of people all at once, all over the country. Over the next few years, it arguably helped to win the war.

This was the “ Music While You Work ” programme – a brainchild of the UK government, which thought that broadcasting live, upbeat music in factories twice a day might help to step up the pace of work and get the military the munitions they so badly needed.

It was a hit. In a report on the show’s success, BBC executives cited the numerous letters and reports they had received from managers nationwide. One described its impact as “incalculable”, while another estimated that, for an hour or so after a session of music, output at their factory increased by 12.5-15%.

Fast-forward eight decades and working to music is extraordinarily common; one 2019 survey of 2,000 Britons found that around half regularly listen to music while they work – with two out of five believing that it helps them to get more done. And as headphones have become standard work accessoriesand productivity playlists have racked up millions of views on YouTube , some companies have started to broadcast music over entire workplaces.

Michael Vettraino, who founded the London-based music consultancy MAV music, says the company has helped to introduce background music to several offices. While their main focus is on providing bespoke playlists for restaurants, casinos and hotels, recently they have branched out into supplying offices, many of which are introducing music for the first time.

“Our clients have told us that it’s increased their productivity when they’ve had the right music playing in the office, in terms of staff motivation,” says Alex Hill, who works as MAV’s head of music and operations. They are always careful to factor in the demographics of their audience – their age, etc. – and fit the music to how they’re likely to be feeling at different times of day.

“When you’re concentrating you’ll want calmer, more relaxing music and at the end of the day when you’re feeling tired, you’ll want something more upbeat. We know that a graphic design agency in Shoreditch is going to want very different music to a high street bank Gloucester. But if you get it right, it should hopefully help people to work harder.”

But can this really be true – or is it wishful thinking? It’s a perennial debate and one that’s almost as divisive as whether reclining your seats on an airplane is OK or what colour that notorious dress is .

The ‘Mozart effect’

Some of us feel that blasting out tunes in the workplace is an inalienable right; the teenager inside us swears they can’t concentrate without the dulcet tones of Kanye West or Taylor Swift ringing in their ears. One despairing worker took to social sharing site Reddit to vent about a colleague who gets into the zone each morning by playing mariachi band music .

Others take cocooning their brains from distraction extremely seriously, booking conference rooms for parties of one, constructing passive-aggressive emails about noise in the office and donning headphones while secretly listening to nothing. The billionaire Bill Gates reportedly gave up music and television at any time of day for five years in his 20s to help him focus.

Our clients have told us that it’s increased their productivity when they’ve had the right music playing in the office, in terms of staff motivation – Alex Hill

“ Historically, music and work have always been intertwined,” says Karen Landay, a former professional violinist and graduate student at the University of Alabama who has authored a review on the subject . “Think about romantic visions of peasants singing as they harvest, or sea chanteys sung by sailors as they work on their ships. And since most people enjoy listening to music of some kind in at least some contexts, it’s perfectly natural to feel that music must have some sort of positive impact on our work.”

There are two possible ways that music might be beneficial in the workplace: by making us smarter, or by making us feel good, and therefore helping us to plod on with otherwise boring tasks.

The best-known example of the first is the “Mozart effect” – broadly the idea that listening to a piano sonata devised by a genius can make you one too. The phrase was popularised after a 1993 paper claimed that people perform better on certain spatial tasks , such as folding paper, after listening to Mozart for 10 minutes.

The concept has spawned a whole industry of products, such as headphones that mothers can use to play Mozart to their unborn children. It sounds farfetched, but more recent studies have hinted that there might genuinely be something unusually beneficial about his music.

For example, research conducted in 2015 compared the impact of Mozart’s “K. 448”, a composition for two pianos, with Beethoven’s equally celebrated “Für Elise”, a solo piano piece. It turns out that while Mozart’s sonata increased “alpha band” brain waves – which have been linked to memory, cognition and problem solving – Beethoven, oddly, had no such power.

There’s also the discovery that mice who were subjected to 10-hour recitals of Mozart’s K. 448 for 10 weeks were significantly better at navigating a complex maze than ones which had to listen to Beethoven’s Für Elise instead.

So, with some famous composers’ work having clearer cognitive benefits than others – what are we to believe? There is another explanation, in which […]


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