Is it possible to lift the spirit of an organisation and improve productivity through the power of music?

As described by American musician, multi-instrumentalist and record producer Stevie Wonder, “music is a world within itself, it is a language we all understand”.

If music can indeed bind us together in a way regular language cannot, does this warrant a role for it in a regular workplace context?

Performing in choirs, as a solo artist and in bands, Emeritus Professor Alan Harvey has always had a keen interest in the evolution and neuroscience of music. A senior Honorary Research Fellow at both The University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Science and the Perron Institute for Neurological and Translational Science, his 2017 book Music, Evolution and the Harmony of Souls looked at the importance of music for human welfare.

Speaking to Leader, Professor Harvey said the level of productivity and satisfaction from music in any workplace would depend on its genre, volume, tempo and the listener’s own background and music taste.

“Music can create great empathy and help link people together emotionally and physically,” he said.

“It is one of the drivers of communal activity and social interaction. If you have music, the vast majority empathise with it. You’ll get a group dynamic going where you’ve lifted the cooperative spirit of the organisation.”

In a 2017 TEDxPerth talk titled Your Brain on Music, Professor Harvey described how music, as a social communication system, had helped humans to work together.

Functioning as a neurotransmitter in the brain, Professor Harvey discussed how dopamine was commonly activated at the emotional peak of a song. The chemical is associated with motivating and rewarding high attention-based behaviours.

But it’s no one-size-fits-all equation.

“Some people find it really hard to work with background music,” Professor Harvey said.

“There is also the potential problem that different people like different types of music. Imagine being in an office where you have a bunch of 18-year-olds, a group in their mid-30s and a bunch of mid-50-year-olds. How are you going to find some background music that is neutral, but beneficial to everybody?”

Musical focus

From social media notifications, to emails and instant messenger applications, we live in a world plagued by distraction.

Research undertaken by Mindlab International revealed listening to music in the workplace radically improved speed and accuracy of tasks such as data entry, proof-reading and problem-solving skills.

When listening to a selection of different genres, classical music was found to be the most effective for improving the accuracy of tasks and resolving everyday mathematical problems.

Listening to pop music, 58 per cent of participants completed data entry tasks much faster.

When proof-reading, dance music had the most positive impact, with participants increasing their speed by 20 per cent compared to proof-reading tests undertaken with no music at all. Interestingly, dance music also had a positive effect on spell-checking, with a 75 per cent pass rate compared to 68 per cent when no music was played at all.

A 2016 Taiwanese study titled Elucidating the relationship between work attention performance and emotions arising from listening to music revealed that, “in addition to demonstrating that human emotions improve work attention performance, numerous studies have also established that music alters human emotions. Given the pervasiveness of background music in the workplace, exactly how work attention, emotions and music listening are related is of priority concern in human resource management”.

The study stated that “background music in the workplace should focus mainly on creating an environment in which listeners feel loved or taken care of and avoiding music that causes individuals to feel stressed or sad”.

Professor Harvey said an individual’s music preference was usually autobiographically dependant.

“It has been reported that one should not select music that workers strongly like or dislike when making a selection of background music to avoid negatively affecting worker concentration,” he said.

“If I had any advice it would be for workplaces and boardrooms to start the day or a meeting with some communal music making; that might be the best thing of all.

“I am convinced the power of music can drive us towards a more cooperative society and a far more connected world.”


Alan Harvey

  • Roles Honorary Senior Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia (UWA) and Perron Institute.
  • Studied University of Cambridge, Australian National University.
  • Worked Flinders University, UWA since 1984.

Sandra Argese is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.