music in the workplace

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Until I became a writer, most of the places where I worked--and every architect’s office and construction site on that list--had some sort of music playing at all times. Having the radio on made work more enjoyable, and probably more efficient. But until now I never considered that music itself my have evolved to serve just that function. In his new book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, research scientist and author Daniel J. Levitin speculates that one of the first purposes music served among our early ancestors was to coordinate group activities, such as hunting and hard labor. Reading the book has me thinking about the differing roles that music plays in the workplaces of architects and builders.

I’ve visited large construction projects where every team of trade contractors had its own boom box, each pumping out a different soundtrack. Given the various backgrounds of the workers, moving from room to room was like an auditory tour of Latin America. I’m speculating here too, but it seems to me that for people whose work environment changes from day to day, “furnishing” an unfamiliar space with familiar music makes it more comfortable.

When I worked in architecture back in the 1980s, the music coming out of the radio set the tone of the office. One firm where I worked had the dial locked on the classical station. At the next we listened to FM rock. Did what we were hearing influence the architecture we produced, even in some subtle way? I believe it must have, if only by altering our moods while we worked.

Today, the architects’ offices I visit are silent. Workers sit at computer workstations with thin, white wires feeding sound directly to their ears. I imagine that composing and controlling one’s own soundtrack makes work even more enjoyable than sharing a single stream of music broadcast through the office. But is there something lost in the bargain? Does working in isolated sound bubbles undermine collaboration and collegiality? I’ll have to ask some of the old timers who remember life before the ubiquitous iPod.

(By the way, while we’re discussing work songs, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou opens with a great scene of a chain gang timing their labors to the song Po Lazarus. I recently learned that the version on the soundtrack was sung by inmates at the Mississippi State Prison and recorded by musical archivist Alan Lomax in 1959.) --B.D.S.




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