We all have emotional reactions to music, whether we are familiar with the 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 also 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, though, 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.

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What Aspects of Music Improve Office Productivity?

There are some aspects of music that are believed to impact office productivity.

  • Tempo: 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 customers’ interaction between time spent in a department store and their 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.
  • Lyrics: 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.
  • Musical structure: 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.
  • Listening habits: 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.
  • Employee control: 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 by being provided some autonomy and responsibility, which will improve their mood overall and make them want to work more efficiently. However, 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 like:

  • Recalling memories, which makes recalling data easier.
  • Reducing distractions in offices with open floorplans.
  • Improving physical and mental energy.
  • Making 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, though, you can impart some of the psychological benefits of music while managing the overall environment.

Certain types of music have scientific backing.

  • 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 instrumentation, which makes it a great option for background music in the office.
  • Video game soundtracks: These also tend to feature modulation so players have greater energy and attention at certain crucial parts of the game. Using certain tracks from games can keep mood and focus on tasks up.
  • 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 may be 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.

What Is the Best Way to Implement Musical Options?

How you add music in your office environment is a larger question. Perhaps you allow employees to bring their own music and use headphones. Maybe you have some music piped in over speakers. Or, you can work with a music streaming service to customize a soundtrack that keeps everyone focused on tasks. If you want to ensure your employees are not too distracted, offering them options for music that you provide – rather than forcing them down one path – may be a good solution.