ALTOM: Are iPods in the workplace music to an employer's ears?

Tim Altom
February 26, 2011
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Tim Altom

Surgeons do it. Students do it. Many of your employees probably do it. Even I do it. We use various devices to do it, from very small ones to rather impressive products with remote controls. Other people around us are sometimes distressed, so it’s best not to do it unless we’re alone or can do it around others who are sympathetic. Some employers don’t want us to do it, while others are anything from tolerant to eager.

We listen to music on the job. It’s rare to visit a workplace nowadays without seeing at least a few employees with tiny little earbuds trailing thread-sized wires down to a music player the size of an infant’s thumb.

Their use on the job is controversial. Many employers think the isolation of personal music looks forbidding and unprofessional, or they worry that the music slows down the listener and saps productivity. Remarkably, there’s very little research that shows listening to music is either beneficial or detrimental overall. It depends on the kind of work you’re doing, where you’re doing it, and how you respond to different kinds of music.

Obviously one big workplace concern is the music escaping into the unwilling ears of nearby workers. No matter how low the volume control goes, there is always spillover. One listener’s Nirvana is another person’s idea of hell, so if music amplifies workplace tension, it’s probably best to curtail it.

But not all ambient music is bad. Surgical teams have been using music for years as a rhythmic and soothing background for procedures. Surgeons often select music that appeals to their team members, rather than just to them personally. The volume is kept low so the team can hear all the other sounds in the room too, and is generally shut off when particularly ticklish parts of the procedure require it.

Marketers have known for decades that music can encourage people to speed up or slow down, even buy more in less time. We’ve also discovered that it can affect cognitive processes, if only a little.

The much-ballyhooed Mozart effect, for example, isn’t so much a musical IQ booster as it is the slight temporary improvement that some kinds of music have on spatial intelligence. The effect is measurable in many people, but just barely. There is no indication that playing Mozart next to your child’s crib will turn him into a genius. We know for a fact that music profoundly affects mood. Movie directors use a wide range of music to set tones in their films, and music can become the most memorable part of a movie.

Despite music’s mood-altering power, research doesn’t consistently show that music either helps or hinders job performance. My own experience appears to be typical. I use music when I’m performing a task that requires attention, but not focus. Grading papers, for instance, or doing drawings. I can work much longer on these essentially boring tasks when I have music in my ears. I shut it off when I have to actively think through something, because then it distracts me. Studies have shown similar effects in other people. But the picture is complicated and there appears to be no general rule.

Many researchers in this area have studied productivity by recruiting students as subjects and having them take various kinds of tests, principally because students are cheap and readily available to academics doing research. For the most part, music seems to have no overall effect on test-taking. Some students do a little better on some tests, some do no differently.

Research is even tougher in the workplace. Some studies have shown slight increases in productivity, but that could be due to the “Hawthorne Effect,” which causes some people to work harder when they know they’re under observation, and which makes it appear that the changed conditions were responsible for better productivity.

The good news is that, while few studies indicate big gains in productivity, only a very few show big losses. Many show no discernible effects at all. It would appear that music probably has no more overall impact on productivity than the color of the coffee machine.

If you decide to play your favorite CDs for everybody in your place of business, you may want to consult your lawyer first. The copyright laws around music are Byzantine, but in general you can’t just regularly play a CD throughout the establishment without paying a fee to someone. Individual players don’t generate the same legal problems, although employees could still be on the hook if they downloaded the music illegally.

Of course, music should be banned where it will cause safety problems by preventing someone from hearing warning bells or shouts.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to grading papers, and to my MP3.•


Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


  • Music DOES Improve Productivty, Indirectly
    The value in listening to music at work is not because doing increases your productivity. Rather, listening to music at work decreases the likelihood that someone will interrupt you.

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