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Ask McArdle: Why don't offices have background music?

Playing music at work can help employees tune out distractions and spark creativity—but only if it’s music they like


(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

Why don’t offices have background music? If some Lite FM feels right at the dentist, why not, say, a bank?

Have you considered that your local tooth-torturer is just using Kenny G to mask the sounds of his maniacal drilling? Still, it’s a worthy conundrum: Unless your office is a retail outlet, radio station or elevator, your background music is likely limited to the soft hum of a ventilation system. Not exactly inspiring.

In the right setting, music can help tune out distractions and spark creativity. A recent study from the Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North CarolinaAsk McArdle badge found that listening to music can help people focus their attention, but—and here’s the catch—only if it’s music they like. In the study, participants listened to tunes while in an MRI machine (a selection that included Beethoven, Brad Paisley and Usher). When hearing a preferred genre or favourite song, the brain showed greater connectivity in a region called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is where we alternate between inner and outer thought. When it’s active, we’re less focused on the physical world around us. In other words, we’re in the zone.

Examples of highly productive workplaces ruled by music do exist. Running back Marshawn Lynch’s control of the Seattle Seahawks’ locker-room iPod was cited as key to the team’s 2014 Super Bowl triumph. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been known to blast Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” after a win (which, given this dismal squad’s record, doesn’t happen often). And in a recent New Yorker profile of Apple’s senior vice-president of whiz-bangery, Sir Jony Ive, it was revealed that the company’s famed design studio is rarely silent—but neither is there a consensus on which tunes are the most productive. A sample tweet from Ive’s executive assistant, Harper Alexander:

Teresa Lesiuk cautions that “providing choice is really important in order for music to have a positive effect in the workplace.” As program director of the department of music education and music therapy at the University of Miami, Lesiuk conducted a 2005 study that examined the effect of letting workers who designed information systems listen to their own playlists. Her subjects used music “to create their own personal space, so they could concentrate on their work,” rather than listen to the clacking of keyboards. “If you impose music on a group of people, you might find detrimental effects,” she says. After all, one colleague’s Kenny G is another’s dental surgery.

Got a management concern? Need to settle a debate? Ask CB’s resident expert in expertise, McArdle: @AskMcArdle