Music can make repetitive office tasks seem easier and help employees concentrate for longer periods of time. It can also improve the overall work environment, helping to boost employees’ moods.
We all have emotional reactions to music, whether we are familiar with a song or not. Foreground music can grab our attention with powerful lyrics and beats while background music can subtly soothe us and influence our feelings about our surroundings.
Business owners have long used music to encourage patrons to stay longer, look through more merchandise, purchase more expensive items, or even eat faster so more diners can move through the restaurant. Now, business owners and managers are working with playlists to help their employees’ moods and productivity as well.
History of Music for Office Workers
Boosting office productivity through music has been a psychological theory for decades. In fact, this concept was one of the original claims of the Muzak company in 1936. While Muzak is famous for soothing or mildly obnoxious elevator music, the company was founded on the idea that background music was an important way to hold and manage employees’ attention.
Muzak offered its specific brand of modulated, calming, instrumental music to hotels and restaurants in the 1930s because these companies preferred not to subject patrons to the constant ads played by radio broadcasts. By the end of the decade, Muzak claimed that this approach to music also helped office workers, increasing productivity, improving morale, and reducing absenteeism.
Muzak also conducted substantial research on the type of music that could benefit employees. Music with lyrics, too fast a rhythm, or higher volume could be too distracting. When office workers started listening to some kinds of music, they stopped focusing on work.
Although Muzak’s marketing claims of their success have been questioned, the company laid the foundation for later psychological studies into how music improves mood and productivity in the workplace.
What Aspects of Music Improve Office Productivity?
There are some aspects of music that are believed to impact office productivity.
Many studies, like the 1982 Milliman study and the 1985 Roballey study, found that the tempo of music influences shoppers’ pace in stores. Faster music made shoppers walk faster while slower music calmed them so they examined more merchandise.
For customers, a slower tempo may be important to encourage them to look at more items or promotions, but for employees, a slightly faster, more energetic pace could be useful.
Affinity or valence
A 1993 study found that time spent in a department store and customers’ musical preferences could change how long shoppers thought they spent in the store. If they liked the song, they felt like they spent more time in the store than they actually did.
Additionally, popular songs were found to lower shoppers’ cognitive activity, but shoppers reported preferences for familiar music because it improved their mood. When it comes to employees, playing noticeable songs like Top 40 hits may not be to your benefit because the cognitive deficit may reduce office productivity. Playing less familiar music could help time fly at work for employees.
Muzak found in the 1930s that lyrics were distracting, and a lot of cognitive research has backed this up. When it comes to employee productivity in the office, playing music over the loudspeakers that has lyrics may distract workers from what they are doing.
Songs with a more complex structure can be distracting while simpler streamed music, such as electronica or ambient music, can improve focus.
Difficulty of work tasks
Harder tasks require more focus, so any added noise can be a large distraction.
If an employee is used to listening to music while they work, then listening to their personal playlists or music from loudspeakers can help them work more efficiently. Conversely, if an employee focuses better with silence, music can be distracting. Finding a way to tailor your work environment to individual needs could improve office productivity overall.
Some employees benefit from having control over when, how, and what type of music they listen to, if any. They can feel greater affinity for their job if they have some autonomy and responsibility, which will improve their mood overall and make them want to work more efficiently.
Still, some kinds of music piped into some areas, like common spaces or break rooms, may subtly influence employees’ moods and cognitive states.
What Music Provides the Most Benefit?
When selected well, music in the office can offer benefits for employees and productivity. Music can:
- Help with recalling memories, which makes recalling data easier.
- Reduce distractions in offices with open floorplans.
- Improve physical and mental energy.
- Make employees feel good.
If you have a work environment like a restaurant, retail store, or open floorplan workplace, you may not be able to allow each employee to curate their own music in the office. By providing specific forms of music, you can impart some of the psychological benefits of music while managing the overall environment.
- Classical music: Based on something called “the Mozart effect,” listening to classical music can slightly improve abstract reasoning and cognition. While this specific effect is contested, classical music comes with several tempos, tones, and instrument combinations, which makes it a great option for background music in the office.
- Video game soundtracks: These also tend to be instrumental and modulated so players have greater energy and attention at crucial parts of the game. Using certain tracks from games can improve mood and boost the ability to focus.
- Nature sounds: Music based on natural sounds or even just soundtracks of natural environments, like waves or birds, can help employees relax and feel good. However, some people find these distracting, annoying, or fatiguing, so it’s important to understand the psychology of your office overall before implementing this soundtrack.
- Other instrumental tracks: Music designed to have a consistent rhythm, tempo, and mode over an entire album, with no distracting lyrics, can also improve focus, mood, and cognition. This does not have to be classical. Ambient, electronic dance music, and modern piano scores are available.
Surveying Your Employees
While there are clear benefits to music in the workplace, you want to ensure the music you choose has the desired effect on your workforce. Start by surveying your employees.
First, ask whether the idea of music in the office is appealing to them at all. Then, ask what kinds of music interest them.
It’s a good idea to list several genres and have them check all the ones they like. Ideally, you’ll end up with many options that work for the majority of your employees. You can also have them list a few of their favorite artists or songs.
Ask your employees if there are times of day when they would not want music playing. This may correlate to certain tasks they are working on.
Depending on your office space, it might make the most sense to have music playing in the lobby, hallways, bathrooms, and breakrooms rather than throughout the entire space. This ensures music won’t interfere with meetings or phone calls. You can also outfit your office so people have the ability to turn it on or off in specific rooms.
Music & Employee Retention
Music is integral to the overall feel and environment of your office. A well-crafted playlist can help employees to feel focused, motivated, relaxed, and happy — and this emotional experience directly influences how they feel about their job.
It’s no secret that employee retention is a major goal for businesses. Employee turnover costs businesses heavily since training a new employee can cost 1.5 to 2 times the departing employee’s annual salary.
You can boost your business’s employee retention rate by fostering a positive work environment, and music is a part of that picture.
Make sure to incorporate your employees’ feedback into the musical selection. They will have a better experience at work if they like the music you play, and they will feel that their voice is being heard if you take their feedback into consideration.
Ultimately, this can mean that your employees enjoy the time they spend at the office more. And this makes it less likely that they’ll start looking elsewhere.
How to Use Music to Boost Office Productivity. (May 2018). JotForm Blog.
The Science of Muzak. (July 2013). Skeptoid.
How Music at the Office Affects Your Work Life. (November 2012). Bloomberg.
The 7 Best Office Music Playlists for Productivity. (July 2018). HubSpot Marketing Blog.
This Fixable Problem Costs U.S. Businesses $1 Trillion. (March 2019). Gallup.