Wellness, work, and music — how it all comes together: Alan Cross

There doesn’t seem to be any real evolutionary reason for homo sapiens to need music, yet our brains seem to be hardwired for it. All known cultures and societies have some sort of music (i.e. some kind of sounds distinguishable from speech). Throughout the whole of human history, not a single people has been found to exist without singing, musical instruments, and dancing. Not one. That trope about music being a universal language? Totally true.

We make and listen to music for entertainment, social bonding, rituals, and transforming/elevating ordinary experiences. Then there are all the therapeutic benefits. Yes, we use music both to hype us up and calm us down but it also has proven benefits for pain management, aiding people with autism, offering help for depression, improving sleep, contributing to positive infant development, and comforting patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

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Traditional Chinese medicine is also big on music. The theory is that the five internal organs and meridian systems all have their own musical tones. Pick the right tone and you can encourage healing. And if you’ve ever been to a spa or retreat that offers guided meditation, you’ll know that music plays a major role.

That music and wellness are intertwined is a proven fact. So it stands to reason that we should take advantage of its power in the workplace.

Wait. Is it a really good idea to allow music in the workplace?

Absolutely. In fact, if your employer discourages listening to music at work, he/she is not only cruel but is actually crimping productivity. Music can be a mood enhancer that contributes to a positive state of mind. This improves your capacity for everything from creative problem solving to higher productivity.

Employers have known this for centuries, which is why they let workers sing while they worked in the mines, on the looms, and in the factories. Anything to keep the proletariat at their posts. It the beginning of music as a management tool.

In 1910, Major General George Owen Squier came up with the idea of transmitting music down phone lines. Over the next decade, he pushed this as an alternative to delivering music without the need for radio. When radio became ubiquitous by the 1930s, the company’s new owners pivoted to piping music into places like offices, factories, and barber shops as a way to keep workers and customers alike in a good mood. Sold as a subscription service, this tightly programmed instrumental music was heard everywhere from elevators to shopping malls.

The material delivered by Muzak — the company’s trademarked name since the 1940s — was so effective in its day that it was considered by some as a form of brainwashing. A 1972 study proved that factory workers performed at a much higher level when peppy happy tunes were played in the background.

Listening to music on your commute into work is a good idea.

Research commissioned in 2018 by French music streaming service Deezer says that listening to music during your morning commute will make you work harder.

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A survey of the listening habits of 1,000 U.K. commuters revealed the following:

  • 90% listened to music on the way to work
  • 64% say they felt the music energized them for the workday, making them more motivated and therefore more productive
  • 40% of younger worker drones said that if they did not get to listen to music on their way to work, they arrived irritable, frustrated and generally surly

Music was said to make people less annoyed with the antics of their fellow commuters — a helpful thing if you’re on public transport and constantly get hit in the head with backpacks. It also helps with road rage, apparently.

There’s no data on what kind of music is best for the daily commute, although that would obviously be a very subjective thing. It also speaks volumes about the power of music radio during drive times.

What type of music is best for the workplace?

It depends. Do you have a space or method (i.e. headphones) where you can listen to your music on your own without disturbing anyone? Are you working in an open concept environment? (More on that in a minute.) An office/store/restaurant/warehouse? Do you control the music or are you at mercy of Diedre at reception?

In general, the best workplace music isn’t distracting from the tasks at hand, something that applies to individual and group listening.

Owners and managers tend to be paranoid about playing music that might turn off customers and guests, so they often turn to radio stations or music feeds with inoffensive pop songs and oldies. In other words, if you hate syrupy pop music, a constant diet of, say, Drake’s mumble raps over the office speakers is going to make you grumpy and unproductive. But since the customer always comes first, employees often have to just suck it up. Still, having someone else’s music foisted upon you — music that becomes noise to you — can have severe negative effects on health and well-being.

Although open concept work environments are all the rage — 70 per cent of all office spaces in the U.S. are said to be open concept — there are obvious disadvantages when it comes to using music as a productivity and wellness booster. Studies show that a lack of barriers and private space can lead to many sorts of stress and drops in productivity. Feelings of well-being may drop by as much as 32 per cent while depressing productivity by 15 per cent.

So what can you do? Headphones are the obvious answer, but that just creates another sort of barrier. You may be immersed in the music but you separate yourself into a little bubble away from other humans. That has its own deleterious effects.

I need to get down to work and concentrate. What should I listen to?

A 2008 study pointed out that 48 per cent of office workers are distracted by any sort of intelligible speech in music. Reading comprehension and memorization can also take a big hit.

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Study after study shows that while music with fast tempos may make you feel good, it can be too distracting, which will drive down productivity. Other studies show that lyrically dense music such as hip-hop and rap can take away focus. Same thing with music that shifts in tempo. The brain subconsciously starts trying to predict what the song will do next, which takes away a little processing power from what you’re supposed to be doing.

When it comes to concentrating, instrumental music with a tempo close to a resting heartbeat is best.

I find that Brian Eno’s 1978 ambient masterpiece Music for Airports works wonders when I’m writing. Science says this sort of thing contributes to alertness, especially when doing repetitive tasks.

So I guess listening to metal is bad, right?

Actually, not necessarily. The tempo may be distracting (and the music may annoy non-metal fans) but an Australian study says that metal is beneficial for the mental wellness of its fans. The sense of community and attendant empathy from fellow fans was found to aid in protecting them from mental health problems. In other words, if it works for the individual, let there be metal.

Another showed that proofreaders completed their tasks 20 per cent faster when listening to trance dance music. There are also those who write computer code — a task that takes a tremendous amount of concentration and trucks no mistakes — who swear by Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack.

The coders may have a point. A Canadian study says that participants scored better on IQ tests while listening to uptempo music.

If you’re doing math — or for example, accounting — classical music seems to offer a boost. Mathematicians fed a diet of classical and orchestral music were 12 per cent more accurate when it came to solving problems. Good to know at budget time.

Meanwhile, an American study says that baroque classical increased the accuracy by which radiologists arrived at diagnoses. It also put them in a better mood. Good to know the next time you need a visit to the imaging department.

Speaking of medical professionals, why do you think so many surgeons like music in the operating room?

The first person to bring music into the operating room was Dr. Evan O’Neil Kane. In an effort to calm the patient before administering anesthesia, he put a soothing record on a wind-up gramophone. It was 1914.

The idea quickly caught on and soon other doctors insisted on listening to music to aid not with the patient’s state of mind but theirs. Current estimates are that in excess of 70 per cent of surgeons use music in the operating room. Some people put the number into the high 80s.

Today, many insist that music makes them better surgeons and produces better outcomes for the patient. Teams get into a rhythm as the operation progresses. Wounds tend to be closed more cleanly and efficiently, whether the work is done by an experienced doctor or a resident.

I quote from one study: “Music helped in reducing the autonomic reactivity of theatre personnel in stressful surgeries, allowing them to approach their surgeries in a more thoughtful and relaxed manner.”

If there’s one workplace where you want music and wellness to go together, it’s in the operating room.

And finally, science has determined that this is the most relaxing song in the universe

If you find yourself stressed out at work, have a listen to Weightless by Marconi Union. Produced in collaboration with the British Academy of Sound Therapy, it ticks all the boxes when it comes to creating the perfect song for chilling out. According to measurements on volunteers, it reduced participants anxiety by 65 per cent and saw a 35 per cent reduction in the stress inherent in their usual resting rates. It is, as far as anyone has been able to measure, the most relaxing piece of music in the known universe.

Here’s a 10-hour version of the song. You know, just in case you’re having a really bad day.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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