Rethinking Music in the Workplace

Music, arguably one of mankind’s greatest inventions, is a powerful tool for creativity and productivity. It has the ability to unite us, inspire us, challenge us, help us focus and put us in a positive state. For this reason, it has long been a silent companion to some of the most complex scientific theories and creative artistic masterpieces. From the greatest ateliers, to the best design studios, even the study space of brilliant scientists, music has been a catalyst in the works of many geniuses. And yet the corporate world has forgotten the role of music as a critical driver of a more effective organization. In many companies, the presence of music, even the use of headphones, is either culturally frowned upon or outright banned by corporate policy.

Companies need to reconsider the role of music within their organization. Music can have a positive impact both at the individual level of employees, and as a collective unit across the company as a whole. Individually, music can directly impact the mood and state of happiness of employees. It can affect performance and help push individuals beyond their limits. Collectively, it can unite employees and create a social bond that brings the organization closer together. It can put teams into a rhythm, and synchronize their activities and output.

There is scientific proof that music has a positive impact on your brain and Daniel Levitin has committed his life to exploring just that. As a cognitive scientist and director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal, his work has shed light on the neuroscience of music. In his book titled This is Your Brain on Music, he describes the experiments that help clarify how our brain processes music, and why certain music, like classical or jazz, evoke stronger emotions than noise or monotonous music. As he explains it, it’s the process of guessing that our brain feeds on, as we hear one part of a song, the anticipation of what is to come and the challenge of it derives pleasure for us. Without it, our brain is unchallenged and excitement is limited. The experience of excitement results in the release of dopamine and serotonin in our brain, and these chemicals give us a feeling of euphoria and positivity. Music gets us high, it feels good, opens our mood, and our minds, which are all positive outcomes you want your employees to gain.

But it’s not just the neurological implications that are important. The anthropological and societal aspect of music is a critical part of our evolution as a species, and that social bonding over music is a part of our nature. Music brings people together; it unites us, and puts us in sync. German scientist Alfred Effenberg of Hannover University has conducted a study looking at the impact of synchronized music on soccer players. In his study called SoundSoccer, he hired a local composer to create a piece for a team, and instructed players to wear headsets on the field. He compared the team’s performance while playing synchronized music, asynchronized music or no music at all. The results showed better composition between players, longer pass chains and quicker passes while listening to synchronized music. In effect, the team was more in sync as a result of the music.

Music and performance in sport have a long history, and that impact has been scientifically documented through extensive experiments. In one study, sports psychologist Dr Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London found that music increased the endurance of professional triathletes by 15%. In addition, music actually lowered the perception of effort, meaning the task at hand seemed less difficult. As a result, their study found that the athletes listening to music were actually more energy efficient by a factor of 1-3%. In other words, as Dr Karageorghis puts it, music is a “performance enhancing drug.” In today’s pro athlete space, it is common to see athletes warming up with headphones, getting in the zone, both mentally and physically. ESPN even did a special on which athletes wear which brand of headphones before a game. As a final point of proof, in 2007, USA Track & Field, a national governing body that oversees events such as the New York Marathon, officially banned personal music players for those competing for awards and money. They believe the ban means that no athlete can have a competitive advantage by listening to music during their performance. In comparison, does the HR policy to ban headphones then take away a certain competitive advantage for a company’s employees?

The technology space is increasingly being filled with gadgets that embrace the power of music. One company is already offering headphones that can read your brain’s wavelength and play music according to your mood. Imagine an individual custom and dynamic musical soundtrack that forces a certain mood or reaction based on how you and everyone is collectively behaving and progressing forward. This turns your workshop facilitator into a composer, and your workshop turns into something the equivalent of a musical performance. Another technology company called [email protected] worked with UCLA researchers to create a neuroscience-based music library that is designed to motivate and inspire you. The service aims to find your productive zone, or flow, by offering a few genres to choose from and by taking continuous feedback on how you performed based on what you were listening to. After 100 minutes, it shuts off briefly, reminding you take a break before coming back to focus.

Composer and author, Robert Jourdain, explains in his book Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, that music and the pleasure we get from it is the result of a series of deviations and returns from a tonal center, and it’s these very returns that result in resolution and satisfaction in our listening experience. This pattern of getting lost and found has many parallels to the creative process itself; the need to be lost and found, in order to arrive at new ideas and to produce something new. If producing new ideas requires intuition, exploration and combinatorial creativity of previous knowledge, then music could be a catalyst, an enabler of this ping-pong like process. There is a downside to listening to music while conducting other activities, especially familiar and favorite music. Although familiar music or music you typically enjoy will have the mood enhancing effects, such as the release of dopamine, if your brain can recognize the tunes, then potentially it will want to follow along, putting an additional load on your thought process. Picking the right music at the right time is key to its affectivity.

Einstein credits many of his great ideas to the inspiration he got from listening to Mozart. His violin is often viewed as a critical tool in his problem-solving arsenal. In one interview when asked about his thought process, he explained he often thinks in images and music architecture, rather than in formulas and words. He attributed his scientific insight and intuition mainly to music. In one interview he said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

At its purest form, a musical piece embodies the expression of the performing artists, reflecting and communicating both the cultural and individual experience of the creation. This, in itself, is a pure source of inspiration – a complete channeling of knowledge, of many ideas and decisions of the artist. If new ideas are the combination and culmination of knowledge, than a continuous stream of ideas is itself a pure source of inspiration.

Music is increasingly playing an important role in the corporate space, and employees, not employers are embracing its value. The power of music as a catalyst in the creative process, both in its ability to give focus to task, but also to inspire and become a valuable tool in our problem solving toolkit. Imagine a workplace where your HR department pays for your Rdio account, ideation sessions are run with Vivaldi in the background, and with every laptop you’re handed speakers and headphones.

 This article appears in MISC fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue 

the author

Hesam Masoumi

Hesam Masoumi is a senior innovation strategist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.