Music at Work: Necessity or Nuisance?

It’s a quiet day at the office.

The sounds of the keyboards a clicking away and you can hear the hum of appliances and the buzzing of fluorescent lighting throughout the room.  It’s kind of nice, but also kind of eerie.  Then a voice is heard that cuts the silence like a knife.

“Do you mind if I put on some music?”

What’s your reaction when a co-worker suggests this? Do you agree that the place is too quiet and needs some sound, or do you immediately nix the idea in favor of silence?

Playing music at work is no big deal for some, but it’s a major distraction for others. Certain businesses have established policies about playing music in the workplace. Some don’t allow it, some allow it in small amounts or at a low volume, and others have top-of-the-line sound systems that pipe music throughout their whole facility (I’ve seen this in many manufacturing facilities. The music gives workers’ ears a break and provides a more pleasant alternative to the constant buzz, hum, or grind of machinery). Workplaces that play music in common areas lean toward classical, jazz, easy listening, or middle-of-the-road rock. Most offices have that one person who wants to crank up the hard rock for everyone to “enjoy”, but there is that respect factor to consider.

But is music a necessity or nuisance? Does it help or hinder productivity?

It’s an individual choice.

We sometimes take music in the workplace for granted, but just think of how much longer that doctor’s appointment would take if they didn’t have that soothing “muzak” playing. I’m one of those people who can’t stand long stretches of quiet. I listen to music on my way to work. I’ve listened to music in some way, shape, or form at every job I’ve had – even bringing in my own CDs to play on the computer if I had to. It’s just easier for me to stay on task if there’s a song playing in the background; it makes the day go much faster.

Setting the mood

Depending on your profession, you might find music to be more of a necessity than others. Certain professions lend themselves to quieter environments—those that involve number crunching, measuring, or any other type of precise task come to mind. If your job requires total concentration or undivided attention for the majority of the time, you’re probably better suited to a quiet atmosphere.

But others thrive on sound—namely, the creative field. Artists, designers, interior decorators, or writers, often use music to set the tone for the day. I know creatives of all kinds who have based their own work on a song or musician. But music can be a great motivator for anyone, no matter what the field. Some of us like to play songs that put us in a certain frame of mind that can provide that extra boost to get through a long-lingering or time-consuming project.

I’m in an office for most of my workday, and although it’s not a wildly creative environment, just playing music helps to put me in a better mood. Though I have busy times when I’m on the road or running to various meetings, most of the time I’m at my computer, and it gets a little tedious if there’s nothing but silence all day. I go to my list of standbys—those musicians I can listen to almost any time of day, no matter what I’m working on. My usual staples for my 9-5 job include Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sarah McLachlan, and Dar Williams. Writing needs a different, mellower playlist—usually jazz, folk, or new age. I use music to keep me motivated at the office just as I use it to relax and get into the “zone” for writing.

Sounds of silence

But I can also respect those who need complete silence in order to be productive. My boyfriend is one of them. As he works on papers for grad school, I respectfully plug in my iPod and we’re both happy. There are times when I don’t mind the quiet but if I know I’ll be in one place, such as my desk or in the car for a long time, I make sure that I have some music handy.

What about you? Do you need music or silence to get the job done?

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Sara Hodon is a freelance writer, nonprofit program manager, and English instructor based in Northeast Pennsylvania.


  1. Jason on the 15th July

    Always music Spotify choice for music streaming.

  2. Jack Franklin on the 15th July

    If I’m at home I’ll always have music, if at work either someone will put some on and if I don’t like what is on I’ll just play some on my computer and use headphones.

  3. Heather Villa on the 15th July

    It depends on what I’m doing. If what I’m working on requires a lot of thought, then I like quiet. Other wise, music is fine with me. Since I work from a home office, there really isn’t much distraction for me, unless the family is home, which is more often in the summer, but normally the ambient sound is up to me.

  4. Eugenio Grigolon on the 15th July

    I agree with Heather. It also depends where you’re working and who is with you. Where I work we have several PM’s near by, so they really don’t like music. Sometimes I’m at a room full of designers and developers, and they love some music. But I always have a headphone in my bag back!

  5. Ashley Hill on the 15th July

    I can’t work without music, so I’m alway sure to bring the headphones with my laptop so I can listen to Pandora.

    And if I’m at home doing work, usually the TV is on, so some sort of background noise is needed.

  6. Ashley on the 15th July

    Would it be possible to move your advertisements that you have recently been using to the bottom of the article? Its really frustrating to see, makes the website seem a little “cheapy” and “cheesy” and really messing with the beautiful look of your website.

  7. Karim Awad on the 15th July

    So necessary, but also, so are headphones! I love music and it helps me work, but I respect those around me.

    It’s gotten to the point where even when I’m not listening to music I have my headphones on. Kind of like a security blanket for my creative mind!

  8. Lily on the 15th July

    I’d say if it’s possible in any way, shape or form for me to listen to music, I am. My boss, however, doesn’t particularly like music (or my kind of music), and my desk is in a semi-open area, so I have a pair of headphones at work to use, and have one bud in one ear, and the other ear open to answer the phone, or listen for my boss’s command to jump.

  9. Carl Natale on the 15th July

    It’s not the music that I mind but what someone else calls music. Plus sometimes I prefer to listen to talk radio or podcasts.

    Plus background music sometimes can be distracting when you’re on the phone. You really shouldn’t have to find privacy at work because of sound levels.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be such a downer. But this is why they invented headphones.

    • Halibrocz on the 3rd January

      And here we have an example of a bitter coworker/boss. Yup, these people exist to make life as miserable as theirs. If my employees work better listening to music – more power to them. However, a few (like this guy) want everyone as miserable as him.

    • nugget on the 1st February

      I agree with Carl. One man’s music is another man’s noise. I fail to see why some people think they should be able to subject others to their own idea of music. And even if you do like their taste, sometimes you need quiet for whatever reason.

      If listening to music YOU like on headphones, and in the process being considerate of others needs ‘makes [your] life miserable’, then you’re the one who needs to take a long look at yourself.

  10. melanie brooks on the 15th July

    I edit two glossy magazines, which means I pretty much write or edit some else’s writing most of the day. I can not listen to music and concentrate on writing/editing.

    Working on editing photos? Putting together rough layouts in InDesign? Designing the ad layout? Pandora is usually playing on my computer. But I also have my own office and don’t have to worry about other people listening to my music choices and my terrible singing voice.

  11. Avery on the 15th July

    Asking me puts me in the position of being “that guy” that ruins everyone’s day by saying no. Thanks a bunch for that.

    • Janet Martin on the 15th July

      I have to agree with Avery. Music blaring in the office? Not appropriate. Using headphones is a great alternative.

  12. Leif-Inge on the 15th July

    Sometimes music can be distracting, but most of the time it helps me concentrate, and sometimes it gets me in “the zone”, and boy do things start flying then. Therefore I find music helpful in my work. I work as a graphic designer for a local newspaper where things often go very fast, so it’s important to be just as fast (or faster). I couldn’t imagine working without music – both in the newspaper and as a graphic design freelancer.

  13. Michael on the 15th July

    This is all fairly moot in the age of headphones.

  14. JR Tashjian on the 15th July

    I’ve got a pair of noise canceling headphones I wear almost all day. I blast the music to block any sort of outside noise that could distract me. I’m a web developer at an agency and just about everyone wears headphones.

    In fact, if I’m not listening to my music, I can’t get into my “zone” which makes me unproductive.

    Gotta have the music!

  15. Anna Lear on the 15th July

    I can’t imagine playing music through speakers in an office setting. What’s a good background track for one person is almost guaranteed to annoy or distract someone else.

    That said, I have my headphones on almost constantly. If I’m not listening to music, I’m still running some white noise through them — it helps me concentrate. Every time the guy sitting beside me clears his throat (and he does, a lot), or someone starts a conversation about what their kids did last night, etc. I can just remain focused on what I’m doing.

    I’m actually looking into getting a pair of ear plugs so I can avoid actively listening to something, even if it’s just noise, and give my ears a bit of a break.

  16. Bret Juliano on the 15th July

    As a front end web developer, I definitely use music to set the tone. I am lucky enough to not have to deal with customers, which means I can block almost all outside noise and make me that much more productive. It was also an added bonus that we can play music at low volumes on speakers or bring in headphones. My musical taste is best enjoyed loud: rap, techno and other genres that people don’t tend to share as much. So I started bringing my noise-blocking headphones, but I leave one ear open so I can still react if need be.

  17. Simon Jones on the 15th July

    If I want to get serious work done, I have to put on some music, something lively. However, if I need to do some writing then it needs to be off or very quiet.

  18. Matt Smith on the 16th July

    Necessity but let everyone select the music.

  19. dajolt on the 16th July

    I really love music and as soon as there’s something in the background that I can recognize the tune most of my brain power goes towards the music.

    From that moment on doing any kind of productive work (as writing complicated code or thinking about problems) is no longer possible.

    But hey, no problem, there’s always energy to surf the web instead.

  20. Bryan Kremkau on the 16th July

    Listening to music with headphones is a necessity for me. Hearing people talking, typing, clipping their nails (WHY DO THIS AT WORK!?, scrapping their yogurts, etc. that stuff just drives me crazy! haha

  21. Rw on the 16th July

    I can listen to the radio at a … at a …reasonable volume.

  22. Naomi on the 16th July


  23. Kristin Wemmer on the 16th July

    I just wrote about my opinion on this topic! I did some interesting research on white noise, too- read the post here:

  24. Jenn on the 21st July

    While we never use a radio or speakers at work, we all have music playing on our ipod family players. This way everyone hears what they want as loud as they want without bothering people. we are a group of designers and developers. so for us, music always gives inspiration or calms nerves when stuck.

  25. Luce on the 3rd August

    I suggest: Groove shark !!

  26. Andrew on the 21st August

    We’re in the headphones camp – the idea of everybody having to listen to the same music is getting less and less relevant. The only thing is – in an open office – the wearing of headphones does reduce the natural internal communication which some bosses don’t like.

    So for those who aren’t into the headphone thing -check out this TED speech from the guy who is making directional speakers a reality – just imagine – everybody operating in their own audio environment – free of headphones – able to interact with everybody else and yet not disturbing them with your personal choice of Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” while you finish the artwork for that pregnancy self help book!

    Gets going at around 5:00 mins:

  27. Eileen Kaloustian on the 17th February

    I frequently read your blog admin try to find it very interesting. Thought it was about time i show you , Sustain the truly great work

    • Mike Vardy on the 17th February

      Eileen…thanks so much for your kind words — and the comment!

  28. Sani Moyo on the 3rd July

    Headphones are the answer so that to each his own. Personally I’m torn depends on the mood really

  29. disgruntled employee on the 17th July

    My company does not allow music, even through headphones. This applies to all environments including the manufacturing floor, offices, and outside. It’s terrible! I can’t focus and have a greater chance of being in a poor mood all day!

  30. Tom on the 13th September

    The director of my department is currently blasting out some music with a subwoofer… I was listening to my own music through earphones, but his music drowns mine out. Not happy.

  31. Lisa on the 5th October

    I love listening to music at work – as long as it is MY music. I’m in a (loathesome) open plan office with about 20 people all close enough to hear if each other is on the phone, though not necessarily the actual words. One person who has a ‘forceful’ personality insisted on having a radio in the office a while ago as she said it was boring otherwise. Some people liked it but those of us who didn’t felt like we couldn’t say anything – being 10 years older than her, when I said I found it make it hard to concentrate she treated me like I was an ancient relic who could be safely ignored. (I’m in my 30s as are most of my colleages.) I finally said in a team meeting that although it was affecting my work, as a lot of it is proofreading, I could put up with it if everyone else liked it and if it was at least turned down a bit, and maybe everyone else in the office got to chose the station occasionally? But the boss didn’t want a fight with her – he never does – so he dodged it.

    I fumed for a bit, then began bringing in my MP3 player and spend at least 4 hours a day with headphones. At first my boss wasn’t happy about this but I just said if you want me to concentrate and get this proofreading right I need to not hear the radio, and this is costing you nothing and I still hear if my phone rings, so he relented. I am much happier and have regained my ability to do good work. And several other people are now doing this too. Best of all, someone else with a forceful personality joined the office and soon demanded that THEIR radio station be played some of the time, and soon everyone else was sneakily changing the station to what they liked, and now it’s pretty much permanently on a generic station that offers everything from 1960s to 2010s and is never too loud.

    In my ideal world we’d also have classical music on, but I’m realistic enough to know you can’t have everything 🙂

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