Functional Music Comes of Age

From beating drums to enter a trance, to calling troops into battle with a trumpet cry – music has long been used to usher communities to a common purpose. These days, the study of its function is centered on the workplace, where music can be used to boost productivity by aiding concentration, fostering team spirit and improving employee morale (more on these last two later). The Sync Project looks at how functional music is finally coming of age.
For an early example of using music in the workplace, we look to Britain in the 1940s and a BBC radio show called “.” Billed as “Light Programme” entertainment, the show was aimed at improving productivity among factory workers, with specific rules applied to what could and could not be played. Music had to be familiar to the workers (no new, distracting tunes); the pace couldn’t be too slow (lest they slow down their work); the volume needed to remain constant (again, for the pace of productivity); and drumming was to be avoided (in case it be mistaken for gunfire). Most jazz music was thought to be too distracting due to the variability of its tone and was therefore banned outright.
Interestingly, many of these parameters correlate closely with the findings of numerous studies done over the 75 years or so since then into the subject of music at work. One of the earliest examples of such research is a 1972 paper from the University of Birmingham entitled “Music – an aid to productivity.” :
“A series of experiments has investigated the relationship between the playing of background music during the performance of repetitive work and efficiency in performing such a task. The results give strong support to the contention that economic benefits can accrue from the use of music in industry. The studies show that music is effective in raising efficiency in this type of work, even when in competition with the unfavorable conditions produced by machine noise.”

Research sings to a common tune

Regardless of which study one refers to (and there are many), the conclusion remains consistent: the right music played in the right context aids productivity. There also seems to be a certain red thread between the finer points of the findings, with the same things highlighted again and again. Many of the studies agree, for instance that melodic, harmonious music is good for concentration and productivity. Many of the studies agree, for instance, that melodic, harmonious music is good for concentration and productivity In much the same way as jazz was banned from the factory floor, so too does it seem that playing dissonant music in the office isn’t good for concentration. The same goes for music with lyrics, which are said to be too distracting.
Perhaps the most important distinctions to make when determining the right music to play in a workplace are between immersive and non-immersive tasks. Immersive tasks are those that require one to concentrate – i.e. calculations, planning, even writing – whereas non-immersive tasks are those that can be performed by rote with little concentration, such as cleaning, assembly or most production-line related tasks.
Studies show that ambient music is often best for immersive tasks, as it typically comes without lyrics and avoids distracting highs and lows. Perhaps counterintuitively, film soundtracks are also said to be good for immersive tasks, as they are primarily composed to play as background music.
For non-immersive tasks, music with energy and pace is said to be the best aid to productivity. As non-immersive tasks are often mundane in nature, here the function of music is to break the monotony and add a sense of light-hearted happiness into the day. In support of this theory, Adrian North’s study at a British bank found pop music to be best for repetitive data entry tasks.


Where to from here?


So what steps should be taken by an employer who wants to explore the benefits of using music to boost productivity in the workplace? There are a few basic rules to follow. First, it’s important to define the task and from there to define the genre. Second, it’s important to not play music all the time; the research suggests that periods of silence are valuable too. And third, it’s critical to allow employees some levels of autonomy over the music; either to have a say in what is playing, or to opt out of listening completely should they wish.

The Sync Project is developing personalized music technology for health and wellness. We’ve made it our business to discover exactly how music affects people, and to harness that knowledge in new life, health, and even, work-enhancing ways. Our technology is designed to analyze the characteristics of your favorite music and put them to good use. Sign up to be first to try our latest product.

Written by Ketki Karanam, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Sync Project