Can Music Impact Employee Performance?


January 12, 2012

I read an interesting article about music, “Music as medicine: Docs use tunes as treatment“, and I began thinking about what impact, if any, that music has on our work performance.  The article shares research that hospitals are compiling on how music affects patient recovery time following surgery.  They have found that certain types of music speed recovery time for patients.

According to the article, “Sound waves travel through the air into the ears and buzz the eardrums and bones in the middle ears. To decode the vibration, your brain transforms that mechanical energy into electrical energy, sending the signal to its cerebral cortex — a hub for thought, perception and memory. Within that control tower, the auditory cortex forwards the message on to brain centers that direct emotion, arousal, anxiety, pleasure and creativity. And there’s another stop upstairs: that electrical cue hits the hypothalamus which controls heart rate and respiration, plus your stomach and skin nerves, explaining why a melody may give you butterflies or goose bumps. Of course, all this communication happens far faster than a single drum beat.”

I’m wondering how this applies to our lives at work.  There are work environments that incorporate music and some that don’t.  Some have harsh, loud music (often found in retail stores like Hollister and Abercrombie) and others play soft Muzak (doctor’s offices, dentists, etc.)  Office work environments may allow employees to play music softly at their desk or in their office.

Effects On Daily Performance

The fact that certain types of music can stimulate areas of our brain that affect perception and memory is fascinating.  There are so many companies that struggle with ways to improve employee performance, yet not once in my career have I ever thought about how incorporating music into the work environment may positively impact employee performance.

Think of the possibilities.  If you have a design company where creativity is valued, playing music to stimulate that attribute could be very beneficial.  Perhaps in a professional services firm you would want to play music to relieve anxiety and send positive messages that improve memory and attention to detail.  The opportunity seems endless.

How many of you play music at work?  What kind and how do you think it affects your performance?

*reworked from the dusty archive…


  • I use music all the time. In most instances I use it for interludes before meetings, breaks and rest periods in training, and when there is dead space as long as it does not throw off the the individuals involved thinking.

    The main positive feedback I receive is that (1) it helps clear their mind and focus on what we are about to do (2) keeps them from being fatigued or tired and (3) helps contribute to them staying alert and engaged.
    If that isn’t a contributor to performance then call me fred!

  • It depends on the type of work I’m doing, if I’m reading and responding to emails or doing paperwork then I typical listening to high energy dance or pop music.
    If I need to concentrate I typically listen to “quieter” music such as classical, especially opera. It helps me concentrate.
    Overall I find that having some kind of music to listen to (headphones, radio playing quietly) tends to help break up the day and provide energy and focus.

  • i prefer soft music while working. although openoffice environment and me being an assistant doesnot allow me much :(. i try to listen to music as much as i can.

  • I can’t recall hearing much pleasant music in my work place since the time my employer played a soft Duke Ellington sort of Jazz (actually, probably a bit more recent than Ellington). I think there are only three (3) types of music I could work with in the office: Old jazz (such as Duke Ellington or Glen Miller), Baroque or near equivalents thereof, and soft instrumental tunes without timbre. The slower and softer, the better. And I reckon there are times that I’d prefer no music at all when assisting customers, counting money, or working on a project. Evidence has proved that music with a faster beat (i.e., more beats per minute) raises heart rate and also raises blood pressure, creating possible pre-hypertension states and even more serious hypertension levels. The evidence abounds. Speaking from HR and Management positions, I would recommend that employers reduce the decibels, reduce the beats per minute, and reduce harsh timbre and other potentially grating sources of audio. There are, to be sure, other factors to consider for the proper music. I’ve written on musicology and how music can affect the brain on a subliminal level. For example, a worker’s performance and mood may be compromised under the influence of broadcast audio without him or her knowing it. It’s very simple, very logical. I think an issue with commerce today is that music should be optional. I realize that some HR or Marketing groups may remind people that “branding, branding, branding is the key” and that a certain music may be critical to the store’s branding — or that “workers like music” or “our workers like a particular kind of music” (such as “classic rock” or “modern pop, trance, and house mix”). And I have also heard owners and individuals in management mention that work environments are boring and lifeless without music. Perhaps. But I do think music should be optional for clients and customers (e.g., in doctor’s offices, shoppes, stores, and on-hold waiting periods on the phone). Speaking from a customer’s standpoint (if I may), I often have a preference not shared by management. In which case I have been known to bribe. Yes, I confess. I have been known to bribe individuals in a pecuniary context, if my preference as a customer is different.

    In short, I’d like to say that work environments — with respect to listening to music — should be as autonomous as possible. If, let’s say, “classic rock” were a mandate (a requirement) and something hegemonious, then I think management would be wise to go in a different direction and provide autonomy to various individuals involved in work settings.

    Thanks for allowing me to comment.

  • If I may, I’d like to add that my research materials regarding music and sounds in offices and workplace have been supported by Julian Treasure (author and business consultant); the Center for Hearing And Communication (formerly called the League for the Hard of Hearing); Elizabeth Flynn, Ph.D., R.Ph., of Auburn University (2002); Gillian Weir, musician, who was crowned Dame in England; and Dr. Richard Pellegrino, M.D., of CARE Arkansas.

  • I find that if I listen to music that I enjoy, it’s harder to concentrate on the task at hand. If we put the radio on in the office, the default station constantly plays ‘easy listening’ music which oftens means that there’s nothing overtly distracting being played.

    Just this week I decided to listen to my own music one afternoon and ended up getting half the work done I would usually; mainly because I was too busy wanting to sing-along, search for other tracks and dance. Fortunately, nobody witnessed the latter…

  • Todd, regarding “musicology and how music can affect the brain on a subliminal level”, what do you feel is the preferable music to promote creativity in an Industrial Engineering environment. If you prefer not to comment specifically, please direct me to your writings that I may do the proper research. Thanx.

  • I’m a professional musician who also works in an office environment. Please consider the fact that different people have different responses to different kinds of music. What “calms” me may drive someone else up the cubicle wall, and vice-versa. There is no single musical genre to satisfy all tastes.

    However, I’m very sensitive to sound and need complete silence when I’m writing. If music is permitted in an open environment, it should be kept at a very personal decibel level and not shared with neighbors. Even those who use earbuds should be made aware that listening at full blast creates a tinny white noise that’s audible (and annoying) to others.

  • William, thanks for your question. I’d suggest: music optional, but only via personal devices plugged into workers’ ears. In other words: no universally broadcast music. Employees, if they wanted to listen to music, would have to do it via headphones or earphones or iPhones or iPods, whatever you may choose to call them. This could provide freedom to each worker: he or she could listen to the music of his or her choice, and not be forced to listen to the music of some other person’s choice. If you’re asking me which music would best foster creativity for an individual — whether it’s industrial engineering, graphics, journalism, community service, or hospital service — I would suggest Bach and Baroque. I say this because I believe it to be the most healthy music for the brain and the body. And the most healthy music for the brain and the body therefore means the best music (I reckon) to foster creativity.

    Therefore: I would suggest music be optional, not mandatory. But if you mandate it, I would suggest it be Bach and Baroque.

    Hope that sort of answers it.

Comments are closed.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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