The Good Listener: When Playing Music At Work, Can You Please Everyone?
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the helpful slips from FedEx reminding us that we have to be at home to receive their package even though most people work during the day, for pete's sake is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a request for ideas for how to play music in the office without irritating people.
Kirsten Elbourne Mathieson writes via Facebook: "I need help with the dilemma of playing DJ at work. Being plugged into our own devices really creates a communication barrier, so how do you select a day-long playlist cool enough to satisfy you, generic enough to satisfy your coworkers, and mellow enough so as not to distract anyone from the work at hand? And what might your suggestions for that playlist be?"
Not all workplaces are created equal, nor are the tasks assigned to every employee in a given room, so it's tough to give one-size-fits-all advice. My late father, a longtime magazine editor, was incredibly frustrated by the pop music his employer used to pipe in overhead while he tried to work; on at least one occasion, Dad climbed onto his desk when no one was looking and disconnected the speaker wires overhead. (That was around the time he asked me to identify the singer of the Whitney Houston ballad "Didn't We Howl and Howl and Howl.") So remember that, depending on the workplace and the worker, any music may be unwelcome.
For some workplaces, you might determine that the only way to please everyone is to let everyone do his or her own thing, provided the music is low enough to not bother others or render anyone unavailable for casual communication. Depending on the tasks being performed — like my dad, I don't like to edit around unusual noises, so I use headphones to blare ambient music that can be easily tuned out — an assortment of stuff played at very low volume isn't likely to upset anyone. If you decide to allow headphones, you could set limits on volume and test people by calling out their names at a conversational level.
If you opt to play music that can be heard by everyone, I recommend steering yourself toward the world's endless variety of wordless music. There are zillions of instrumental options in classical and jazz and electronic and African music, of course, but I also recommend the soulful, frequently wordless funk of Herbie Hancock or The Sugarman 3, the zippy electro-rock of Ratatat, the orchestral ambience of Stars of the Lid or Eluvium, the spare solo piano instrumentals of Nils Frahm, and on and on. Depending on the office's collective mood — the more plaintive stuff can be calming or sleep-inducing, but that varies based on the listener and time of day — a lot of instrumental music should be able to keep people happy and productive while keeping taste-based squabbles to a minimum. Good luck.