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Music makes commuting tolerable, but headphones at work? Not for me

Study shows that listening to your favourite tunes in the morning sets you up for a more productive day
Dallas Green of City and Colour
Dallas Green, of City and Colour, performs one of his hits that makes the commute a little more tolerable. Shutterstock.com

By Todd Humber

“I want to hurry home to you, put on a slow dumb show for you – and crack you up. So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain. God I’m very, very frightened, I’ll overdo it.”

Those were the last words I heard — and admittedly a bit too loudly — before I got out of my car this morning to come into the office. It’s the song Slow Show, by The National, and it always puts me in a great mood.

Music can make a long commute tolerable. Whether you’re sitting in traffic behind the wheel, on the bus or riding the rails — cranking up your favourite playlist can set the stage for a better day in the office. Music, it seems, is a universal pick-me-up.

In the United Kingdom, music streaming service Deezer commissioned a study of 1,000 workers late last year. It found 90 per cent of them listen to music during their commute. Nearly two-thirds said it made them more productive when they arrived at work. Young workers, particularly, said missing their tunes on the way in would leave them feeling frustrated and irritable.

I believe it.

Alan Cross, the disc jockey behind the fascinating program The Ongoing History of New Music, pointed out the universal appeal of music.

“Our brains seem hardwired for it,” he said. “All known cultures and societies have some sort of music. Throughout human history, not a single people has been found to exist without singing, musical instruments and dancing. Not one. That trope about music being a universal language? Totally true.”

I believe that too.

I’m always struck by concert footage of Depeche Mode, one of my other favourite bands, from non-English speaking countries. The crowd is just as into it as those in London or Toronto, and they sing all the words — despite, in all likelihood, not understanding any part of the lyrics.

In Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Queen and its iconic front man Freddy Mercury, the lead character discusses a concert they played in front of more than 130,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I don’t have the script handy, and therefore can’t quote him word for word, but he made the same point.

“I don’t think they had a clue what I was singing about,” he essentially said.

One of the biggest hits in North America last year was Despacito — not my cup of tea, but it was catchy and a massive hit despite being sung entirely in Spanish.

Music at work

There are a lot of workers in my office who wear headphones during the day. When I joined the workforce in 1996, that was unheard of — putting on headphones implied you were slacking off.

Personally, I still can’t do it. When the volume goes up, my focus goes down. I can’t write coherently with guitars, drums and keyboards playing in the background. My mind inevitably wanders far away when Dallas Green, of City and Colour, starts bleating out “So there goes my life, passing by with every exit sign. It’s been so long, sometimes I wonder how I will stay strong.”

The next generation doesn’t seem to have that issue — or at least they claim to be able to multitask effectively. I’ve written before about watching my partner’s teenage children study while listening to music and watching YouTube. I’m skeptical, but they got good grades and made it into competitive university programs — so who am I to question?

In the office, I’ve heard staff say it helps them concentrate because it blocks out distracting conversations and the ringing of phones. And if you’re doing something like data entry, then sure — it can make a mundane task palatable. It’s also a universal sign that says “leave me alone,” a virtual door for the cubicle dwellers.

If they’re getting the job done, more power to them. But me? I’ll leave my Spotify playlist dormant until I get behind the wheel. But then? Look out. Because I’ll play it too loud, sing horrifically in the process and arrive, wherever I’m going, in a better mood.

What’s on your playlist? I’d love to hear the songs that get you through gridlock and crowded trains and buses. Tell me your can’t miss songs for commuting in the comments below. Thanks!

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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