Workplace rhapsody or singing the blues

Cows are more productive when milked musically. But do people work better while listening to music? (Image: China. Org. Cn.)

MANAGEMENT specialists might finally be tuning into what dairy farmers have known since the cows came home: Listening to music while on the job increases productivity, reduces stress and achieves an all-round happier herd…um…workforce.

It is true. Bovines have been boogie-ing to Bach, moo-ving to Mozart and shimmy-shaking to Schubert for donkey’s years, and farmers have been gleefully milking the profits as a result.

According to a recent report from Israel, Avraham Sindlis’s kibbutz dairy moved from 102nd place in the country’s milk production ratings up to 11th in two years. The key to creaming it? Sindlis plays his cows music by Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and a couple of udders.

“It’s pleasant for them and me, and it passes the day,” he told local newspaper, Yediot Achronot. “It may be hard to prove scientifically, but the quantities of milk speak for themselves.”

Meanwhile, in two-legged, less horny circles, researchers at the University of Illinois found a 6,3% increase in productivity among musically-enabled workers compared to a musically-deprived group.

In another similar exercise, 75 of 256 employees at a retail company in the US were given personal headphones – attached to iPods, MP3 players and the like – to listen to at work over a period of four weeks. The outcome was a 10% increase in productivity by the tunefully-augmented bunch.

Ultimately though, the most profound piece of evidence about how music increases productivity is known as the Mozart Effect, named after a 1993 study showed students performed better at mathematical problems when listening to Mozart.

Indeed – concurs Professor of Music at the University of Cumbria, Richard McGregor, in a recent report by the institution – playing music at work is essential for anyone ‘working nine ‘til five’. He is convinced it increases productivity, and leads to a happier and more motivated workforce. The right level of background music, he says, can make the day seem shorter, keep spirits high and reduce the number of stressful situations that crop up.

“There’s clear evidence that a happy workforce is a productive one and the easiest way of raising the spirits in the office is to put on the radio or a CD,” explains McGregor. “Most offices operate in near silence, with the only noise being the sound of keyboards tapping and phones ringing. This in itself puts people on edge and can make them fearful of making any noise. However, the right level of background music leads to an immediate change in atmosphere, and encourages creativity and relaxation amongst everyone.”

So, the secret to improved workplace productivity is as simple as plugging in and turning up the volume? Unfortunately, not. Choosing the wrong type of music, qualifies the professor, can cause office arguments and lead to more problems than it was intended to solve.

“The choice of music is vital and there is a risk that if it’s the wrong choice, it could be a recipe for office disaster and upset most of the office,” he says.

And – as anyone with a teenager attached to an iPod will confirm – the use of headphones presents its own set of problems, chiefly because of how they isolate individuals.

So, how do you select the right music for improved performance? Scientists believe music that has constant easy beat and light melodies increases concentration by aiding focus and memory. For better concentration, choose Baroque music like Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Haydn.

Productivity, however, is advanced with increased relaxation and so music with an upbeat rhythm is recommended. These tunes make you feel happy and less stressed, resulting in improved output.

Happy? Upbeat rhythm? I advocate something like the Village People’s YMCA? Katrina And The Waves’ Walking On Sunshine?

Or perhaps you’d prefer to leave the music in the cowshed and enjoy the ‘sounds of silence’?

(This article was first published in Management Review with Business Day as the September 2008 version of my If The Hat Fits column.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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