As we’ve seen, music can be highly effective at boosting our exercise, but what about our work? With a massive shift away from office working this year, we’re no longer surrounded by the background noise of colleagues’ chatter and the clatter of keyboards.
Now that we have the opportunity to sculpt the soundscape of our working environment, what should we choose? Can we increase our productivity and happiness at work? Do we miss the office? How can we utilise sound to shape our new working culture?
Start your day right
When working from home, adjusting into professional mode can be a struggle without a commute. Borrowing a technique from music therapy can help with this – the iso principle. Start your day with a song to match how you’re currently feeling: perhaps tired, stressed, or anxious, and then gradually alter the song choices to shift you into the desired work state of positivity and focus.
Listening to music is a great tool to help us manage anxiety, become motivated and stay productive. Invest some time in creating the perfect playlist to get you into the right mental space for the tasks you need to tackle.
Blast through your to do list
Studies show that people listening to music while completing repetitive tasks such as filing or data entry tend to be in better moods, produce work with fewer mistakes and work more efficiently.
Music can be a great boost, providing a rhythm to work to and automatic mood elevation
Similar to in the gym, when you need to keep your energy up, music can be a great boost, providing a rhythm to work to and automatic mood elevation. Songs in the major key tend to be motivating, as well as songs that add narrative, so the soundtrack of your favourite film could be a good choice.
Do lyrics distract?
For more complex tasks, especially those with a ‘verbal architecture’, be mindful of listening to music with discernible lyrics.
This can take up cognitive processing power needed for the task in hand, interfering with reading comprehension and information processing. Listening to music of this type while working is similar to the distraction of nearby colleagues in an office chatting, which has been proven to affect productivity by up to 66%.
Lyric-free classical music can be a good choice for work environments and can even stimulate the part of the brain associated with attention and focus. Choosing songs with lyrics in a language you don’t understand is also an option.
The sound of silence
Some people find complete silence the best environment to engage in deep thinking. These people may be finding the move away from traditional work setups to be a silver lining of a difficult year. A 1997 study found extroverts were more likely to prefer listening to music and indeed functioned better in this state, reporting better short and long-term recall. Introverts performed significantly worse on memory tests listening to music compared to silence.
Moderate levels of ambient noise are associated with increased creativity, so this could be worth exploring if you’re stuck in a rut and struggling for inspiration at work.
If you find music doesn’t compliment your work style, try listening before you start. Listening to music before doing tasks or on breaks can be uplifting and focusing. It can also be a good way to delineate our day without the social interaction we’re used to in the office. Swap your usual 3pm tea run and kitchen chat with a colleague for a spirited singalong to some Fleetwood Mac while the kettle boils. Music can also be integrated with the breaks in the Pomodoro Method to aid productivity.
Missing the office?
For anyone finding the forced adjustment to home working hard, help is at hand! Anyone missing the familiarity of typical office sounds is served by Calm Office. Their interactive background noise generator allows you to replicate the sound of open-plan working, whether that’s the ping of the elevator, your colleague eating breakfast or the clatter of typing.
The ‘babble effect’ of noises and conversations running together mimics real life environments and creates stable background noise. This also serves to block out annoying noises, if your upstairs neighbours have decided to make use of quarantine to get in to DIY.
Judging by the 250,000 streams Calm Office received between March and September 2020, many are seeking to recreate a slice of normality.
Perhaps office simulation is the new frontier of background audio, taking the place of more conventionally relaxing choices such as rainstorms or birdsong.
Listening to Alpha waves as we work may hold a secret weapon to increase brain power. Only 1 of 6 of our brain’s processing methods happen on the conscious level, so there is potentially great benefit in engaging the deeper parts of the brain while taking in information. The Alpha state (8-10Hz) occurs when brain activity slows just below the normal waking state of Beta (11-25hz). When listening to Alpha frequencies, the mind and body are relaxed but a focus is maintained, meaning that while one is consciously learning, the brain is also unconsciously processing what is being learned. We like this video.
All things considered
There’s no one size fits all solution to the new working culture that the pandemic has accelerated, but as we adjust we can make informed choices. It can be empowering to have more control over our working environments than ever before, if we are lucky enough to be weathering the Covid storm at home. Now that battling for the office stereo is a thing of the past, my personal recommendations for music to work to are Grouper, Brian Eno and Jenny Hval- artists who make use of lyrics subtly and indistinctly, and whose thick use of reverb tends to swaddle me from distracting noises, offering a level of comfort and calm.
One music consultant’s opinion: the movies
From Lizz Harman, Creative Music Consultant:
‘When it comes to WFH listening, as an individual with a somewhat limited attention span, I prefer to listen to music without lyrics to help retain focus on the task at hand.
This is fairly common practice amongst us worker bees, though the genres we turn to vary. Some of us prefer deep house or techno, some find classical music best aid’s our concentration. Personally, I prefer to listen to film scores.
That being said, here are a selection of tracks from films I truly love, the scores of which also happen to serve as a wonderful accompaniment to various aspects of the working day. Whether you’re in need of some intensity, or perhaps prefer something a little lighter when ploughing through the to-do list; from John Williams to Daniel Lopatin, there’s something here to soundtrack the various highs and lows of the WFH day.
P.S. Would highly recommend devoting some attention to the full scores if you ever find yourself in the mood.’