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Music at Work: Should You Be Listening to Smetana, Metal, or the Ocean’s Waves?

Article October 10, 2018  |  Text by Lucie Kolomá Text by Lucie Kolomá

Are you one of those people who can’t type a word at work without their headphones, and who build walls of music in open-space offices? Or do you prefer absolute quiet mixed with an occasional word with your workmates? Read on for a probe into the musical worlds of office souls.

First, a bit of theory: already back in the 1970s, the study Music: An Aid for Productivity showed that laborers have much better productivity with music than without. Background music is recommended for office “laborers” as well—especially for repeated tasks.

Listening to music at work amounts to a sort of multitasking; the brain can’t hear human speech without trying to interpret it. But this may not be a good fit for everyone. In a 2008 study by Finnish scientists, a full 48% of respondents reported that speech was the workplace noise source that disturbed them the most.

It’s said that words are the main thing that reduces employees’ productivity. For other people, listening to music makes their work more efficient. According to a 2005 study by Teresa Lesiuk, this is especially true when people put on pleasing tones that they’ve chosen themselves.

Lifts You Up, Lowers You Down

Ravi Mehta, a researcher at Illinois University, also confirms that complete quiet doesn’t give the best results. He says that neither quiet nor noise is ideal for work. He also notes that an appropriate level of distraction breaks up our fixed thought processes, and that we tend to think more creatively when our thoughts break free of a problem. The best support for creativity, he adds, comes from the gentle sounds of nature or the city.

If you need a boost at work, tune in to music with a tempo of 120 to 140 beats per minute. Tough moments full of concentration, meanwhile, ask for music with 50 to 80 beats per minute, ideally with no lyrics. According to Dr. Emma Gray, the right choice of background music at the right tempo can help to induce the alpha state in your brain, making your thoughts calm and completely concentrated.

He Listens to This, She Listens to That

It’s practically impossible to find universal tones shared throughout a whole open-space. The last few decades’ music alone offers a wide range of artists and genres, and many of your workmates will be reaching even farther back than that. Some people, meanwhile, turn to earplugs.

A large part of the respondents from various companies that we approached for our survey on this subject also stated that they regularly listen to various soundtracks from movies and video games. A large part of them also praised Noisli, an app that plays nature sounds. A scientific study from 2015 published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America meanwhile confirmed the effectiveness of listening to the sounds of trains or the sea or other nature sounds, stating that these can improve one’s mood and cognitive abilities in an office environment.

Earphones can also function as a method of non-verbal communication at the office. “I mainly use earphones for entering a calmer mode—but also as a tool for indicating to the people around me that I currently am not available. That’s why I make sure that my earphones are big enough. Most of the time, today’s top piano works are what’s playing into my ears. From time to time I play hits from my childhood—Discopříběh, Brontosauři, and Karel Zich,” says Renata Vildomcová, head of marketing and communication at Skanska Reality.


From the Sex Pistols to Esmeralda

Take the answers below as just a subjective recommendation by various people as to what and whom they let into their ears at work. So what do people from different offices listen to?

“I listen to music practically from the moment I get up. In the morning, I start smoothly in the spirit of what was wafting from my earphones on the way to work, and then comes an essential part of the day—the process of discovering new music. I’ve fallen prey to the convenience of the evil Spotify, but to maintain my balance, I also browse Bandcamp. I don’t have any genre boundaries,” says Michal Smrčina, a Socialbakers data analyst and editor at the music-focused Full Moon Magazine.

“I can’t listen to anything when I’m writing. It would keep me from hearing my brain. I also mind it when my neighbor puts on music. I’m sound-oriented, and so it immediately makes me lose interest in what I’m doing,” says the copywriter Barbora Polách.

“When I’m preparing presentations, I put on my playlist, where I’ve collected various songs that I’ve planned to listen to in the given month and that interest me, like the latest song from Linkin Park. If I need to read a contract or work on texts, then I prefer to tune in to Dvořák or Smetana, so that the words don’t disturb me when I’m reading, while at the same time the music still fills me with energy,” admits Iva Janoušková, Leasing Negotiator at Skanska Property.

“At the office, I have my earphones on practically nonstop, and what I play on them can be divided up into two camps. Spoken word and music. I regularly listen to visually undemanding TV shows, or for example interviews and discussions. When it comes to music, while I’m working, I can filter out practically anything. So the range of things I might hear back-to-back on my playlist is broad, like Chuck Berry, Sex Pistols, Wu-Tang Clan, and my Prague favorite: Smack,” says Jakub Splavec, PR Manager at AMI Communications.

“When I’m doing routine work, I like to listen to both music and spoken word, for example interviews on DVTV, SeznamZpravy and so on. When I need to concentrate more, I switch to something more relaxed, ideally compositions with no text. Bands that I know by heart and whose text I don't even perceive anymore are an exception here. My favorite artists right now include Nuages,” says Marek Havlíček, data analyst.

“I put on either radio interviews or stupid TV series as my background at work. I need to hear human voices, and a series like Esmeralda doesn’t distract me at all,” admits illustrator Vendula Hegerová with a laugh.