Music in offices in Financial Times

I was recently interviewed by Financial Times for an article on music in offices.


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Is music at work a hit or miss?

Following last week’s report on BBC that police chiefs in the UK pay £600,000 per year to PRS so that staff can listen to music, music in the workplace has again been debated in media this week.

BBC News Magazine ran a story where they tried to understand further the effects of music in the workplace, and asked me to comment. You can read the full story by clicking on the picture below.

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Following this, local radio station BBC Ulster further discussed the topic with me on the line. You can listen to the clip here:

BBC Radio Ulster 2013

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Interview on music2work2

This is old news, actually! From earlier this year. But I just realised I had not mentioned this interview on the website, so here it is – click on the image to read the full interview:

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Music at work article popular in Musicae Scientiae

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BBC Radio Scotland interview

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New Music in Offices Survey

Tell me what you think are the benefits and disadvantages with music in offices!

I have put up a new survey (only 10 questions) about music listening  in offices – anyone who works in an office environment can take part here.

Whether you listen to music at work or not doesn’t matter, I am still interested in your views and opinions!

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BBC Radio Scotland tomorrow

Tune into BBC Radio Scotland – MacAulay and Co – at 11.10 tomorrow, and I will be live on air talking about music in offices!

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Music increases staff morale also in retail sector

New research by PPL and PRS for Music states that:

  • 65% say music makes employees in the retail sector more productive
  • 75% believe that background music could help to relax and minimize awkward silences in workplaces

This is an interesting piece of research, as this is one of the first times that a study has focused on employees working in the retail sector – a gap in the research area of music in workplaces that I pointed out in my research on music listening in offices.

The study reports several positive effects of music, and these are similar to the functions of music in office environments:

  • Relaxation, reduction of stress
  • Configuring the auditory landscape (reducing silence)

Dr Vicky Williamson adds: “Music positively influences consumer mood/emotional states through psycho-physiological reactions and autobiographical memory associations”, and that “a completely silent work environment can lack stimulation, interest and, for many people, a dynamic and creative source of energy”.

Other positive effects of music listening at work, known from previous research are:

  • Avoiding boredom
  • Avoiding unwanted interruptions
  • Allowing employees a sense of freedom and identity marking

This is all very good. However, what also transpired from research into music listening in offices is that choice is a powerful aspect. Having to listen to imposed music – without any control over it – can be detrimental to employees. It is easier to choose your music in an office environment, but in a store where music is played through a PA system employees listen to the same music at the same time. If this music is disliked, it can cause irritation and stress for employees.

For example, one participant in my previous survey study on listening practices in offices also worked part-time in a large UK supermarket. He said:

At Christmas we get the same 3 Christmas CDs over and over for the full 9 hour shift… torture!! I’m sure there’s a human rights cruelty issue here…

The influence of music choice on employees is something that would need to be investigated further, and there seems to be anecdotal evidence that music is not always enjoyable among employees in the retail sector. Furthermore, we don’t yet know whether music actually makes employees in the retail sector more productive, or whether this is mainly a belief among business owners and managers.

Music listening is by no means a ‘magic pill’, or a perfect solution to problems with stress and staff morale in organisation. Yet, it is worth noting the positive effects that music listening can have at work.

This piece of research could provide a starting point for further research into how music affects the employees in retail environments. Effects on employees may indirectly influence customer behaviour and store spending positively, through customer service behaviour, mood and helpfulness. But if music affects employees negatively, there may also be other financial drawbacks, such as high staff turnover costs, low morale and effectiveness, high absenteeism through sickness, and other health issues.

By considering the beneficial effects of music at work, but also minimising the negative ones, music can continue to perform an important role in the everyday lives of employees throughout their working day.


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My latest talk in Leicester

2 weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Department of Media and Communication at University of Leicester. Here is a Storify account with tweets from the lecture:


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Music at work: distracting or beneficial?

I recently read a piece of research, which argues that multi-tasking is ruining our brains. The idea is that our brains are changing because we have to multi-task to a greater extent today, with all new technology etc. This is according to a Professor Clifford Nass, at Stanford University, and his research has been interpreted to suggest that listening to music at work can be detrimental.

The results in this study seem to suggest that those who are heavy multi-taskers actually perform worse on a test of tasks-switching ability, which could have to do with a reduced ability to filter out interference.

But how does this actually sit with what we know about music listening at work? Is it true that music listening while working could be detrimental, and that such ‘multi-tasking’ behaviour should not be encouraged in workplaces?

It is certainly true that employees can find music distracting, and feel that it hinders their task performance. However, many employees find music beneficial to their concentration. So what factors could influence whether music is perceived as distracting or not? It could be due to a number of different factors, as participants in my studies indicated:

Musical structure. More complex musical structure could be more distracting. This means that it is not necessarily instrumental vs vocal music that influences whether music is distracting or not, but rather how the music is constructed.

Lyrics. Of course, lyrics could be distracting. Especially if they trigger thoughts and associations, although this does not happen with all lyrics do.

Musical training. Those with musical training may be more likely to listen more closely to the musical structure, timbre, rhythm and so on.

Other associations. For example, some employees associate music with leisure, rather than with work, and could therefore get distracted.

Previous listening habits. This is a very important factor. If employees are used to listening to music while working, they will feel less distracted. And vice versa.

Work-related interruptions. When employees are at work, work-related tasks and conversations are most often prioritised, whereas the music is subordinate. This is quite obvious, as employees are in the office to work – not to listen to music. So when work-related interruptions occur, music can become distracting. However, it is also worth noticing how many listeners at work also – on the other hand – use music to manage interruptions at work!

Task complexity. If an employee is unfamiliar with the task, they are more likely to perceive the music as distracting. This is of course very individual!

Sense of control. When employees are forced to listen to music, the music will often feel distracting and annoying. When employees can decide for themselves if they want to listen, and if so – how and to what, they are more likely to find music beneficial.

These are just some of the many factors that seem to play a part in whether music listening can be distracting or not. It is tempting to try and simplify arguments and nail down quick explanations, such as “instrumental/classical music is better for concentration than vocal/pop music”. However, we need to resist such quick analyses, and instead look also at the whole context in which the listening takes place. It is interesting to note that many laboratory-based studies of the effects of music on task performance find distracting effects, and that the researchers often seem to choose the music for the participants – without even reflecting on the matter. Would the results look different if the participants could choose the music they wanted?

For more literature on music and the effects of self-selection and control:

Batt-Rawden, K., & DeNora, T. (2005). Music and informal learning in everyday life. Music Education Research, 7(3), 289-304.

Burns, J., Labbé, E., Williams, K., & McCall, J. (1999). Perceived and physiological indicators of relaxation: as different as Mozart and Alice in Chains. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 24(3), 197- 202.

Greasley, A. E. (2008). Engagement with music in everyday life: an in-depth study ofadults’ musical preferences and listening behaviours. PhD thesis, Keele University, Stoke-on-Trent.

MacDonald, R. (2006). An investigation of the effects of post-operative music listening in hospital settings. Paper presented at the 9th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, University of Bologna, Italy, 22-26 August.

Mitchell, L. A., MacDonald, R. A. R., & Brodie, E. E. (2006). A comparison of the effects of preferred music, arithmetic and humour on cold pressor pain. European Journal of Pain, 10(4), 343-351.


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