The Science Behind Music in the Workplace

What creates a positive workplace experience? It’s easy to focus purely on visual changes, how décor affects productivity, the layout of the space, and environmental features like access to natural light. However, our experience is shaped by more than just the physical environment around us.

Music is an effective tool for shaping our moods and mindsets that most of us tap into every day. Nearly 65% of all adults in the UK listen to music every single day, with a further 30% listening to it on most days. Our ever-connect mobile devices and music streaming apps make it easier to keep a consistent listening habit up, too. But have you considered how music could also change the workplace experience?

Here, we’re going to look at the role that music can have in the workplace and the science to suggest that the improvements to mood, stress reduction, productivity and focus aren’t to be underestimated.

A genuine stress-buster

Stress, and the ever-related anxiety, are playing an increasingly negative role in our workplaces. Work is frequently touted as the single greatest cause of stress for UK adults, with one-in-five people naming work as a stressful environment and one-in-ten suggesting they experience stress at their job once a week.

Music is no cure-all for stress and anxiety, but it has been shown to have a range of effects that can help stress more manageable. It can be used to comfort those with negative feelings, to better release neurotransmitters that create feelings of happiness and excitement, and to offer a mental diversion, all of which can help to combat stress.

Maintaining your focus

Music can be an effective distraction from our thoughts, which can help us be more at ease in the workplace. But it can also improve concentration, allowing us to block other sources of distraction and to focus on tasks that can be demanding or repetitive.

This is in part due to how it acts as ambient noise. Consistent, low-level background noise has been shown in studies to be significantly less distracting than quiet environments where background noise is intermittent and more noticeable. Some types of music are better for this kind of focus than others. Music with lyrics, for instance, is suggested to be more distracting than anything, while lo-fi and instrumental hip-hop, or other steady, rhythmic kinds of music without lyrics have been shown to help workers maintain focus.

Music and productivity

The improvements in mood and reduction of distraction that music can provide can have a net positive effect on the productivity and motivation of the team at work. Not only does it eliminate those breaks in focus that can lead to lower work output, but the increase in mood has also been linked to an increased quality of work according to a wide range of studies.

However, the effect is not universal, nor does it apply to all music equally. Listening to upbeat, complex music while doing repetitive tasks can help employees stay motivated and more mentally alert. Yet that same complex music can be distracting when it comes to tasks that demand high levels of concentration, such as those that involve reading or communicating. For those tasks, lower tempos and simpler compositions have been seen to work better.

As such, incorporating music effectively in your workplace can mean ensuring that the right tune is playing at the right time, or making it space dependent. To take an example, the customer service team at the front end of a restaurant might benefit better for ambient, simple music, while the chef’s team in the back could use complex, up-tempo music to improve concentration and engagement with their work.

Bringing belonging to the work environment

Familiarity with the music that’s being played is also suggested to have a role to play in determining how effective it is at increasing mood and focus, as well. Unfamiliar music can be more of a distraction than anything, as employees may strain to better make out the music and to actively listen to it rather than to simply let it play while they work.

Some studies have shown that employees have a better reaction to music that they have personally picked to be played in the workplace. This could, in part, be down to the fact that they appreciate being able to contribute to their own work environment. There is undoubtedly a greater positive effect on mood from music that we recognise and know that we already like, as well.

However, regardless of who makes the playlist, there is evidence to suggest that familiarity is a net positive. As such, workplaces that have consistent approaches to music could be better for productivity and mood than workplaces that are constantly trying something different.

The perception of the workplace

Music not only influences our mood directly, but it also influences how we see other people. Studies have shown that interacting with others or being around others while listening to happy, upbeat music can create a perception of those people being happier. Similarly, being around them while listening to sad music can create the perception of them being sad.

As such, music can be used to create a greater sense of shared enjoyment in the workplace, making the overall environment seem like a more positive place. Not only can it affect how your team sees their workplace, but it’s an important part of brand perception for customers and clients who are visiting, as well.

Music creates social spaces

Using different music in different spaces of the workplace can have great effect on stress and mood, too. While you might have a series of playlists for improving productivity, allowing your team to play their own music with a radio of Bluetooth speaker in the break room can be much more effective for creating a more friendly, welcoming space when they’re away from their work. Music helps us socialise, breaking the tension of silence and enable mutual appreciation. Music in the break room can have a positive effect on interpersonal relationships at work.

The research behind the concepts above is still ongoing, and it can be difficult to know the specific effects that music has on the brain, especially since it’s subjective and different types of music affect people differently. However, all the research available night now is consistent in suggesting the positive impact it can have on mood, stress relief, productivity, focus, and perception. It might be time to think about how you use music in your workplace.