music in the workplace
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
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.