A few years ago I worked in an office so quiet, I could hear my boss sighing.
That he did so frequently and with what can be described as an air of hostile resignation merely contributed to the oppressiveness of those long, silent days. The only other sound was that of my coworkers typing their complaints to one another over gchat and the tinny voice of Taylor Swift leaking out of the earbuds of a younger colleague, the only person in our open-plan office who ever smiled.
Not all offices are like this. I had another boss a decade ago—one I look back on much more fondly—who had a turntable in his office. Every so often, he’d drop the needle on a record he thought might lighten the mood. One of the signatures of the early issues of Wired was the inclusion of “The music that helped get this magazine out.” (Want a flashback? Seal, k.d. lang and Los Lobos powered the magazine’s 1993 premiere issue.) Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon is partial to listening prog rock as he works. (“I listen to vinyl records, unless I'm working on a plane,” he told Slate in 2012.) According to Tina Amirtha on Fast Company’s Co.Labs, engineers at Snapchat rock a playlist featuring LCD Soundsystem, Steve Reich and St. Vincent, among others.
Music can be the ‘x’ factor that turns a good workplace into a great one. It can also turn a grueling assignment into a pleasure, or pass the time as we toggle between multiple deadlines.
It’s not just that certain kinds of music motivates us: There’s some art and science behind the ways sound affects us. To understand how your soundscape impacts your productivity and creativity, MONDAY sent some questions to Joel Beckerman and Tyler Gray, authors of The Sonic Book: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy (out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Beckerman is a composer and founder of Man Made Music, a sonic branding firm that’s worked with companies like Virgin Mobile, AT&T, NBC, CBS, ESPN and others. Gray is the author of The Hit Charade and SVP, Editorial Director for Edelman.
MONDAY: What’s the ideal sonic environment for getting things done: Silence, gentle murmuring, lots of noise? Or do you find that different kinds of sounds lend themselves to different kinds of working environments?
TYLER GRAY: First the actual research here: a Dec. 2012 article, “Is Noise Always Bad,” by Rui Ravi Mehta in the Journal of Consumer Research 39. A team of researchers found that things like talking in a cafeteria, roadside traffic, and distant construction--moderate ambient noise, really--enhances the performance of creative tasks. It apparently promotes abstract processing in the brain. I'd add that the "moderate" part of this is really important. The sound has to fit into a pattern that your brain can dismiss. The way our brain works is to constantly look for patterns. When something falls into a pattern, the brain can easily categorize it, file it away, even. But when something breaks an expected pattern, that's what's behind attention. If a group of sounds or music fits into a pattern (it's familiar, repetitive, or a mesh of indistinguishable sounds) then it's likely to promote productivity.
JOEL BECKERMAN: There are apps that take advantage of this: The Thunderspace app creates a bed of white noise intended to keep you focused; Coffitivity is a website and an app that mimics the sounds of a coffee shop at various times of day; Ambiance, another app, offers a wide array of productivity noises. Personally I find white noise helpful when I’m working on the train on creative tasks but ambient music when I’m free-form brainstorming. Actually, our book website has a lot of free playlists you can try to help you change your mood or focus your attention.
M: Are there any big corporations or smaller companies working specifically on engineering soundscapes for the workplace? If not, what should they know to do it right?
JB: This is a huge factor in employees’ lives. Architects need to consider what healthy sonic spaces are, abating noise issues, excess reverberations, and promoting conversation and collaboration. Think about when you’ve been at a noisy restaurant and how lousy that experience is, and how great it is when the restaurant gets it right. Now consider you if you have to be at the same noisy restaurant 200 days a year, all day. What does that do to your overall job satisfaction, productivity, collaboration, creativity, effectiveness and quality of life?
TG: I've heard tell that Morningstar, the financial data firm, has sonic devices installed the ceiling that cast a veil of white noise around individual workspaces. Outside noises don't permeate the cone of white noise as well. But since it's a steady noise, when you're inside the cone, you really don't hear the white noise. You only benefit from having all of the other spiky sounds tuned out.
It's a veil of fake silence. Disney does this with its "lands" at theme parks. You hear certain sounds that match the costumes and settings. Then when you leave that land, you encounter sounds that trigger peace and quiet. Disney uses sound (like bird sounds or wind) to fake silence between its lands so that you can cleanse your sonic palette before stepping into another world. The last thing they want is for the country sounds of Frontierland to bleed into the futurist beeps of Tomorrowland. It'd be the sonic equivalent of seeing an old-timey cowboy bumping shoulders with Buzz Lightyear—confusing, jarring in a way that rips you out of the fantasy at the parks.
M: What does it mean that many of the sounds of work we many office workers knew well—phones ringing, keyboards clacking, the sound of ice clinking in a highball glass at the crack of 4:55—have been muted by technologies that are essentially silent? Do we work differently now that most workplaces no longer has a mechanical soundscape.
JB: Silence is a plague in offices. If you work in a large office or a big matrixed organization, I can almost guarantee you that the "creative" department is the loudest. That's not an accident. Silence is a canvas for distraction. It's a counter-intuition that most corporations get exactly wrong. When there's less sound, more individual sounds pop out. And that commands attention and distracts from the task at hand.
In actuality, muting everything is the easy way out, and not very effective. People think that the opposite of noisy (what we call Sonic Trash in the book) is silence. Silence is a myth. There is always sound. The opposite of noisy is meaningful soundscaping—sound that helps your experience or gives you important, useful information just exactly when you need it.
TG: It's a similar situation to city-dwellers who have a hard time sleeping in the country. When I visit my family in rural Florida, I have a hard time sleeping. There's no persistent whine of sirens, no whoosh of traffic, no cadence of horn honks at all hours. So I hear every rustle of the bushes outside. Nature's cacophony is too much for this humanist to take.
In terms of work, ever notice that it’s not the noisy offices where you see a bunch of people with headphones on to avoid distraction? It’s the silent ones. So much silence is a Petri dish for distractions. It's really detrimental to collaboration and creativity, too, because it forces every individual to create his or her bubble of isolation.
M: What sounds got you through the writing of this book? Music? White noise? Your kids banging on the door of your study?
JB: I wrote some portions of this book with headphones in my ears and a low level of white noise playing so I had some negative space or silence even when I was in a crowded coffee shop, on a commuter train, or in a house full of noisy kids. White noise increases not only apparent silence but also the perceived distance between the space you’re in and another sound source.
TG: I keep a Spotify playlist called "Productivity." Follow it if you like, here. It's mostly Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, Swans, and other rock that has little to no lyrics. Humans saying or singing words distract me. I love hip hop. But I can't listen to it while I work. I care too much about the lyrics. Black metal is good for working for me--who can tell what the hell those guys are saying? (I presume it involves Satan, darkness, solitude, winter coming, etc.). I listened to a lot of it, too, while I worked on this book, mostly at coffee houses and crowded public venues. Sleepy, late-night jazz works, as well. But no punchy saxophones that sound like human voices. Occasionally, despite my best efforts to harness the power of sound to focus, the visuals got in the way, like one time when I was working in a Tribeca coffee house and looked up to see Malcolm Gladwell sitting directly across from me staring at his screen.