I now like to listen to music as background noise whilst I work. Previously, my preference was to work in silence, but while home-working during lockdown, I’ve found some stubbornly challenging periods to get concentrated and stay motivated, so I’ve since reconsidered my thinking on the powers of music for improving productivity.
In fact, I’ve completely changed my stance on music to listen to while working. But my discovery did lead me to wonder what makes certain pieces of music more work-friendly than others? As it turns out, a piece of music being ‘work-friendly’ is entirely subjective and dependent on what you find to be effective at that time. Music isn’t the only answer, and it may just be a placebo, but it’s more than a metaphor; music can be a literal catalyst to help us tune into our highest frequency focus.
The research shows that my new ‘music whilst you work’ habit can be beneficial, with music offering a range of benefits when it comes to factors such as productivity, creativity, concentration, and mood. Note that many of these benefits are interrelated, for example, when music improves my mood, I feel that improves my concentration, and consequently also improves performance. So, what’s on my work music playlist?
Walk on the Wild Side, by Lou Reed, from his second solo album, Transformer, has been on my iTunes work playlist these past few months. The lyrics describe a series of individuals and their journeys to New York – you all know the tune, the backing vocals that go do-do-do, do-do-do-do, do-do. The song was Reed’s biggest single, despite its touching on taboo topics such as transgender, drugs, male prostitution and oral sex.
Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson and released as a double A-side with another Reed classic, Perfect Day, Reed’s distinctive deadpan voice, poetic and transgressive lyrics on the track were trademarks throughout his long career. Like many of Reed’s songs, Walk on the Wild Side is based on a simple chord progression – the alternating between C major and F major, or I and IV in harmonic analysis, the pre-chorus introduces the II, D major – creates the hypnotic loop in our head.
The song is also noted for its twin interlocking bass lines played by Herbie Flowers on double bass and overdubbed on a stacked knob 1960 fretless Fender Jazz Bass. In an interview, Flowers claimed the reason he came up with the twin bass line was that as a session musician, he would be paid double for playing two instruments on the same track, thus totalling his pay to £34 for his contribution to the track.
It’s a great song for an exercise of mindful listening because it builds gradually with different instrumental elements dropping in and out. Here’s what I’ve taken from listening afresh to Walk on the Wild Side:
0.00 Starts with a single note, followed by a succession of pairs of notes on a bass, with heavy string reverb, then joined by a gentle, strumming acoustic guitar in the background;
0.11 The drums come in, played softly with brushes rather than sticks, creating a laid-back sound;
0.20 Reed’s lead vocal now drops in, deep, resonant but vulnerable, engaging you with the story of the song, not just its sound;
0.33 Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side – the refrain heard for the first time.
0.52 A second bass line, played on an electric base comes in adding a mournful note, drops out at 1.05 before coming back in;
1.11 A single cymbal smash;
1.25 In response to Reed’s powerful lead, those famous female backing vocals make their first appearance, just for 15 seconds or so, building to a crescendo;
1.45 A gentle, sweeping high pitched violin line drifts in taking its cue from the vocal melody and developing into an instrumental flourish between verses; it goes on like this for a bit until…
2.16 The acoustic base jumps to a four-note pattern just for a few bars, and Lou makes a little yelp between verses… HuH
3.10 Lou goes back full on do, do-do, do-do-do-do, do-do, the backing singers pick up the refrain and build to another crescendo; you can still pick out the two bass lines, the brushed drums and the guitar rhythm;
3.37 The vocals drop, and a single soft brushed cymbal heralds a baritone sax solo, that meanders off into the distance, taking you with it, as the song fades;
4.12 The end.
Growing up, I had a ritual to go through to listen to music. As the music started playing, I’d follow along with the lyrics and analyse the different instruments playing, as above, as I tried to analyse a little more about what it was I was hearing.
I’ve been reflecting that much of my time over recent months has been spent with music playing in my ears, thanks to those air pods. I have been using music as the backing soundtrack to my work. Previously, I’d honoured silence as an art form, a fully curated experience, so why was my music now so important to my work?
I found that music has been used to improve our working mindset for some time.
The weapon was initiated at precisely 10.30am in the morning. It was 23 June 1940 and World War Two was in full swing. The Germans had invaded vast swathes of Europe and captured British troops in Normandy. Now the BBC had been asked to get involved. Their intervention was completely invisible, yet capable of infiltrating the minds of thousands of people all at once, all over the country. This was the Music While You Work initiative. It was hoped that broadcasting live, upbeat music in factories twice a day might help to step up the pace of work and lift worker’s spirits up in challenging times.
Music While You Work was described as a half hour’s music meant specially for factory workers to listen to as they work. It was broadcast twice a day with a memorable theme tune in Calling All Workers, written by Eric Coates. In 1941 Wynford Reynolds was appointed to oversee its output, dictated by the need for it to be heard amid the noise on a factory floor, thus the music played favoured bright, simple melodies. It was a hit. Reports described its impact as incalculable, an estimate that, for an hour or so after a session of music, output at the factory increased by 15%.
This is supported by the most highly publicised research on the mental influence of music, described as the Mozart effect, where researchers at the University of California investigated how listening to music affects cognitive function in general, and spatial-temporal reasoning in particular.
In their first study, they administered standard IQ test questions to three groups of students, comparing those listening to a Mozart piano sonata with a group listening to a relaxation tape and one that had been waiting in silence. Mozart was the winner, consistently boosting test scores. Mozart seemed to improve spatial reasoning and short-term memory.
If you love listening to music, you’re in good company. Charles Darwin once remarked, If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to listen to some music at least once every week. So, what are the benefits I’ve experienced from talking a walk on the wild side during lockdown?
Music makes you happier Research shows that when you listen to music you like, your brain releases dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. I’ve definitely experienced this. I have go-to tracks when I need an emotional boost. Music doesn’t get in, it is already in. Music simply uncovers what is there, makes you feel emotions that you didn’t necessarily know you had inside you, and runs around waking them all up. A rebirth of sorts.
Music enhances performance Psychology Professor Marcelo Bigliassi found that runners who listened to their favourite music completed their run faster than runners who ran without music. If you want to take your productivity up a notch, listen to songs that inspire you. I definitely have some ‘go faster’ tracks. Music to me is one of the key breaths of life. I listen to music so I can hear myself alive.
Music lowers stress Listening to music you enjoy decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body, which counteracts the effects of feeling worked up. This is an important finding since stress causes 60% of all our illnesses. We all have deadlines, but to stay calm and healthy during a day when you’re ‘back-to-back’, play a tune. Be sure to sing along and tap your feet to the beat to get the maximum healing benefit. I think any time I’ve ever got down or ever felt low, the one thing that picks me up from that is my music. At least you’ve got a positive experience out of a bad experience.
Music elevates your mood I do enjoy working on my own with a deadline. I love not being interrupted, sitting in the study by myself listening to music, getting stuff done. Soothing jangled nerves is one thing, raising sagging spirits another. Music can make us feel happy, energetic, and alert. There are many great songs to sing along to that make you more positive. The idea of music having a use goes back centuries. The beginnings of written-down music was the liturgy, and obviously that has a connection with the idea of a meditative state and all of that. So, music can really be useful in that way.
Music strengthens learning and memory Music is the language of memory, said Jodi Picoult, and research shows that music can help you learn and recall information better. Association, routine and patterns from music help to create a strategy to work more effectively.
Music increases verbal intelligence Music is to the soul what words are to the mind – Johnny Marr. After only one month of music lessons (in rhythm, pitch, melody and voice), a study at York University showed that 90% of participant had a significant increase in verbal intelligence. Researcher Sylvain Moreno suggests that the music training had a ‘transfer effect’ which enhanced the children’s ability to understand words and explain their meaning. In my experience, recalling memorable lyrics have improved my communication skills.
Plato had it right when he said Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul. No matter where you’re at, music can improve the quality of your working life in so many ways. Doctors tell us that social isolation is a cardiac risk factor, and Robert Browning wrote that He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once. Tolstoy explained that Music is the shorthand of emotion. Human warmth can blunt many woes, and as Shakespeare proclaimed, If music be the food of love, play on.
I know now that listening to music whilst working can lift me out of a rut, trigger a new idea and inspire me to just graft a little further – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. Each time you play music, it becomes new. This is one way I’ve been thinking about solo home working during lockdown and the present, past and future times all fitting together, in the moment, by music. Very often we go through life without thinking about that moment. We talk about mindfulness but we’re not very mindful, most of us. Try listening to music whilst you work, it’s been a revelation for me.
Here’s my ‘quiet and reflective’ playlist to see you through a home-working shift.
1. Spinning Away – Brian Eno & John Cale
2. Love is a friend – The Durutti Column
3. 1979 – The Smashing Pumpkins
4. All in full of love – Bjork
5. Song to the Siren – This Mortal Coil
6. Sleep of the Just – Elvis Costello
7. Great Beautician in the Sky – Magazine
8. Crowds – Bauhaus
9. Poke – Frightened Rabbit
10. Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed
11. Dreams Never End – New Order
12. Rotterdam – The Wedding Present
13. Pleasurehead – Seafood
14. Won’t Stop Loving You – A Certain Ratio
15. There is a light that never goes out – The Smiths
16. Cattle & Cane – The Go-Betweens
17. Protect Me – James
18. Atmosphere – Joy Division
19. Sound & Vision – David Bowie
20. Videotape – Radiohead