Music at Work

Recently I listened to Irish singer/songwriter Carmel Boyle’s wonderful new CD, Dance with Me, in the midst of a major work project. Piercingly beautiful, the music struck my heart and inspired my creativity. As I listened to the theme song, “Dance with Me,” about being drawn out of the shadows into the light, I found myself more grounded, more courageous in my creativity, and more productive.

Rarely do I listen to music while working (or, as in this case, interspersed with working) and I felt moved to ask, “Does music improve creativity at work?” While I have loved music for as long as I can remember, I have separated listening to music from my work. My musings led me to further experimentation and to Dr. Anneli B. Haake’s website, Music at Work.

Dr. Haake has discovered in her research that, despite much public opinion to the contrary, self-selected music improves work performance. One of her studies demonstrated how music helped employees enhance their concentration by “reducing both internal and external distractions (blocking out unwanted sounds, signaling to colleagues not to disturb, preventing daydreaming, and helping to block unwelcome thoughts).”

Not only does music enhance concentration, it also contributes to relaxation at work, Dr. Haake found. Through channeling stress and negative emotions, through reminding listeners of time and space outside of work, and through creating space for reflection, music calmed workers. Employees reported how relaxation helped them provide better customer service and work more effectively on their teams.

Of particular interest to me, Dr. Haake’s research established the value of listening to music not only for simple tasks, but also for complex tasks. While earlier studies had confirmed music’s ability to help workers more effectively perform routine tasks, Dr. Haake’s latest studies also demonstrated that music could enhance concentration and creativity in complex tasks. Self-selected music does indeed improve creativity at work.

Dr. Haake adds a few caveats to her findings about the value of listening to music at work. Above all, music must be self-selected. When management pipes in music or a co-worker’s music blares, employees report irritation and distraction. Furthermore, listening to music at work is not for everyone, and even those who listen to music with some tasks prefer a quiet atmosphere at other times. Music at work must be self-directed.

A new discovery for me (how could I be so far behind the times?), music at work will now add another dimension to my work environment. I will return to Carmel Boyle’s Dance with Me as well as seek out other inspiring, creativity-enhancing music. I will experiment with when to listen and what to listen to. No longer does music need to be separated from my work. I have discovered a powerful new tool for groundedness, reflection, and courageous creativity.

7 Responses to “Music at Work”

  1. 1 Shari Bowman April 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Most of my life has been spent with music, of course, teaching for 20+ years. When I worked in an office environment, I sometimes listened to music, and never found it to be a distraction. Unfortunately, I am recently fascinated by political analysis and so don’t listen to music as often as I should. The political analysis probably increases stress, the music would help to release it. Thanks, Margaret, for this article.

  2. 2 executivesoulblog April 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Shari, as a musician, how did you choose the music you listened to at work? Did it vary according to your mood?

  3. 3 Nicolette Wellington April 26, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Hi Margaret,
    As a person who has always preferred complete silence when I work, I find this article a wonderful invitation to embrace the possibility that relaxing to the backdrop of music, I might, indeed be more creative. In working with art groups for elders, we always had music as a background to help people relax.
    Silence can be spacious, which I really like, but it also allows for “getting stuck” and forgetting the passing of time. This sense of movement and relaxation as part of the creative process allows a certain openness bounded in time.
    I can hardly wait to listen to Carmen Boyle’s new CD!

    Nicolette Wellington

    • 4 executivesoulblog April 30, 2012 at 9:25 am

      Nicolette, please let us know how it goes for you. I, too, have always appreciated the spaciousness of silence. At the same time, I now see how music can complement that silence at times.

  4. 5 Kenneth Haase April 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    I’m looking forward to doing some work with Carmel’s music as background and am delighted that you’ve come around to my working practice after all our years of marriage!

  5. 7 Susie Allen May 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    As a musician, I loved reading this article and it stimulated much thought and reflection on my own practices. I have always found that I need silence when I am working . . . as I get drawn into the music, listening for subtlety and nuance, and get distracted from work. That said, when I’m working in the kitchen, or working on a craft project, I often have music playing in the background. My (now grown) children often/always had music going while doing their homework and I struggled to accept that it was helping them and not distracting. Your article sure confirms their experience and challenges me to try, again, to work with music in the background. Thank you!

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