Brief History of Music in the Workplace

Although technology has made listening to music in the workplace easier, music has deep roots within industry and labor. Work songs were widely used by a variety of occupations, such as factory workers, agricultural laborers, sailors, and miners. For example, prisoners in chain gangs and slaves working on plantations passed the time and escaped from the harsh realities of life by singing about freedom as they toiled; cowboys would sing trail songs, such as "Git Along, Little Dogies" while on long cattle drives (for review see Uhrbrock, 1961). After World War II, the development of "functional music" by the Muzak Corporation made programmable music accessible for the traditional office setting. Through research on music and behavioral responses, Muzak developed a "stimulus progression" program in which music was used to increase productivity, without being distracting to employees. Workplaces ordered from a selection of recordings, each of which was designed with a specific order and type of music to counteract the fatigue cycles in humans; for example, the fastest and most uplifting songs were played at 10:30 AM and again at 3:30 PM during the workday (The New York Times, 1984).

Early empirical, as well as anecdotal, evidence suggests that music not only improved worker productivity, but also increased workers' perceived happiness. For example, in 1916, a laundry facility reported that playing ragtime music for their washwomen helped increase their work speed and appeared to be happier at work (see Uhrbrock, 1961). In 1922, the Minneapolis postal service began playing music while postal employees sorted mail. Managers noted that sorting errors were reduced by 13% when employees listened to music than without (Uhrbrock, 1961). Other research has found across several factories that employee boredom decreased while production increased by 6.2-11.3% on days when workers were listening to music than days when no music was playing (Wyatt & Langdon, 1937, as cited in Humes, 1942). Similarly, another early study reported that the efficiency of female workers in a radio-tube factory increased over the course of nine weeks when listening to music than without music (Humes, 1942). Mean hourly percentage of scrappage (i.e., the percentage of wasted metal from incorrect assembly) was lower during the nine weeks of music listening (1.75-3.78%) and actually increased (2.27-4.94%) during the three weeks where music was banned from the factory (workers subsequently petitioned management to reinstate the music; Humes, 1942). Across several factories, the presence of music increased production on average by 6.8% and occurrence of early departures and absences was reduced from 22.15% to 2.85% over a four-week period (Burris-Meyers, 1942, as cited in Kirkpatrick, 1943). Finally, a study on data preparation operators did not find significant effects of background music on productivity or efficiency; background music did, however, have a positive effect on worker attitudes, and approximately 54% of workers reported that they would rather work with music playing than in silence, whereas only 34% of workers preferred silence (Gladstones, 1969). Overall, these early studies identified several general trends: music alleviated worker boredom and fatigue, reduced errors, and improved both performance and psychological wellbeing.

However, not all findings on music at work have been so positive. For example, one study reported no difference in the quality of typing for students listening to jazz (i.e. very fast) or dirge (i.e., very slow) music (Jensen, 1931). Another study found that listening to popular music while reading increased distractions and reduced reading comprehension in (Henderson, Crews, & Barlow, 1945). Some studies have found that while listening to music had no effect on productivity, it did have a strong effect on worker attitudes and perceptions of efficiency. For example, a study on workers in skateboarding factory found no effects of music on overall productivity, but 73% of workers reported perceptions that they were more productive with music playing and 88% of workers reported listening to music made their job more enjoyable (Newman, Hunt, & Rhodes, 1966). Gladstones (1969) didn't find that background music had any significant effects on worker rate or efficiency in his study on data preparation operators. However, he did find that music had a positive effect on worker attitudes, and that 25 of the 46 workers reported that they would rather work with music playing than in silence, whereas only 16 workers preferred silence.

Due to limitations in technology, early research on music in the workplace had only focused on background music played through speakers. Oldham, Cummings, Mischel, Schmidtke, and Zhou (1995) argued that background music would restrict a person's choice and control over the type of music played, and that this lack of control may explain why previous studies found mixed results. They proposed that using a personal-stereo headset (which was new technology at the time) would affect employees' attitudes and behavior at work by not only fulfilling a need for control over one's work environment, but also helping employees to focus their attention on work and by affecting their mood. Their results suggested that compared to those who chose not to listen to music while working, the employees who listened to music at work demonstrated significant increases in their job performance, organizational satisfaction, and reduced turnover intentions over a four week period. The authors also found that job complexity moderated the relationship between music and job performance, such that, listening to music harmed performance for employees with complex jobs, and enhanced performance for those with simple jobs. This supports earlier findings that music was most effective for factory workers' productivity when those workers were engaged in tasks that did not demand high levels of mental concentration (Kirkpatrick, 1943).

More recent studies have found similar results as Oldham et al. (1995). For example, listening to music while working hours increased state positive affect in computer information system developers (Lesiuk, 2005). Furthermore, the developers also perceived that their quality of work was higher and more creative when listening to music than without music (Lesiuk, 2005). Similarly, listening to one's preferred music increased engineers' happiness at work, and that this positive emotional response went away when music was removed from the office (Lesiuk, 2010). A qualitative study of employee music listening patterns revealed that, in addition to increasing positive emotions at work, music evoked inspiration, concentration, and stress relief. Employees indicated that music helped them engage in their work, reduced monotony, and used music as a way to reduce interruptions and distractions at work (Haake, 2011).

However, the past work from organizational scholars focuses almost exclusively on the immediate consequences of presence vs. absence of familiar music, with little consideration of the characteristics of music that might produce these effects or the mediating mechanisms that transmit these effects. What is missing from past research is a coherent theoretical model for how and why different characteristics of music affect in-role task performance. The purpose of our paper, therefore is to address this issue, by developing a theoretical framework using self-regulation to explain how characteristics of music positively or negatively affect various performance-related outcomes.