#musicatwork – Part 1: Production Music

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on the most efficient music to listen to while working, which reminded me of Anneli Haake‘s research. I started a spontaneous journey through the hyperlinked byways of the internet, looking for ways in which music and work have come together, and using the #musicatwork hashtag on Twitter to catalogue it (I call it ‘research’). It’s peripheral to my doctoral interests really, but the purpose was to help me think through instances in which music might have been more functionalised (other than sync or brand partnerships, where music is literally put to work) – to try and get away from the idea of music purely as entertainment, escape, or emotional release. I gathered a far richer collection than I expected and really underscored music’s seeming capacity for getting deep beneath the skin and regulating affective flows.

I’ve collated these across two posts, divided along the lines of production and consumption. Part 2 here.


I. Music in the workplace

There are two main categories here: work songs, often sung by workers to rhythmically regulate their activities, create camaraderie, ease boredom and loneliness, or comment on working conditions; and background music in the workplace, often (but not exclusively) office settings, and usually initiated by the company rather than the individual worker. Obviously there’s some overlap between the two, especially in the era of headphone listening and articles like the one that kickstarted this whole exercise.

The liner notes for the CD ‘Wake Up Dead Man‘ helpfully distinguishes between ‘songs about work’, ‘songs one happens to sing while at work’ and ‘songs that help people to do work’. Here’s a few of the latter.

There is a rich ethnomusicological tradition of collecting work songs (different songs for hunting, harvesting,  nursing children, etc) in indigenous communities. I have very fond memories of being exposed to these as an undergraduate in Steve Stanton’s excellent lectures on music from oral cultures. There are plenty of CDs on labels like Smithsonian Folkways to browse through and Ted Gioia’s book is an important one in this vein. More instances of ‘songs about work’ in the second part of this post.

We move more into the realm of ‘songs that happen to soundtrack working life’ with the advent of recorded music (aside from humming and whistling – which can sometimes be beneficial, although not always appreciated). A website set up by PPL/PRS (Music Works For You) offers research into the economic benefits of music in the workplace, never failing to remind you of the need to get a license to do so. Martin Corbett has an article on the role of sound in regulating workflows, from bells in ancient agrarian and sacred communities, to the sonic ecology of contemporary organisations.

While we’re all aware of Muzak (the lift music company, now repositioned as a ‘multi-sensory brand marketing agency‘), fewer of us are perhaps aware of the Seeburg 1000 Background Music System – a jukebox designed to be installed in workplaces, the contents of which can, delightfully, be streamed from this website. The BBC, custodian of national interest that they are, have a key role in all this – here’s the theme and an extract from ‘Music While You Work‘, a soundtrack for factory workers broadcast twice daily on the Light Programme throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s.


It seemed to go back the other way as well – in a recent BBC4 documentary (no longer available to watch) former Head of Music Doreen Davies talked about going into workplaces to find out what workers wanted to listen to. Here she is in an earlier broadcast, talking about whether Jimi Hendrix was a suitable soundtrack to a fish finger factory, alongside programming for housewives. As well as some small insights into the work culture of the radio station, also watch for the guy uttering the immortal line “I get up in the morning at half past five and I’m told all I need is love. I don’t need anything like that, I’ve gotta go to work”.


More bizarrely, rather than music, some open-plan offices have experimented with synthetic masking sounds, such as pink noise and babbling brooks, that block out background conversation without causing annoyance.


II. Corporate anthems and audio branding

The website ‘corporate anthem‘ (of unknown provenance) boasts that sounds like jingles, sonic logos, and full blown corporate anthems can ‘open the heart’ and ‘increase retail sales by 30%’ as ‘95% of all purchases are emotional’.

The practice has roots in the company song (associated with the ‘company man’ of Fordist industries). The songs sung by workers at IBM, like ‘Ever Onward’ and ‘Hail to the IBM’ are excellent examples. Music is central to IBM’s corporate history, which developed its own songbook and symphony.


The Japanese company song is reputed to have inspired fierce loyalty, while Germany has its own tradition.


Over time this mutates into the corporate anthem – more of a client-facing affair but one that still tries to convey a strong sense of company culture and work ethic. The Guardian lists their favourite corporate anthems, of which my absolute favourites are technology firm Symantec’s feisty Black Box-summoning ‘Symantec Revolution‘ and the PWC consultancy’s ‘Downright Global’, with lines like “Innovation, imagination / total global integration” and “We evaluate, negotiate and reduce / taxes such as income, property, sales and use”.


The corporate anthem blends the company song with the audio logo. Here’s all of the Windows startup and shutdown sounds that have been used since their inception (v.1.0-8.1) – the soundtrack of office mornings and evenings for a quarter of a century.


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