Music in the Air

In those first moments of a workshop, when you have to turn to someone beside you and start up a conversation, it can be uncomfortable. Whether you’re given a topic to discuss as part of an introductory exercise, or just making polite conversation to introduce yourself before the meeting even starts, it can feel awkward. Especially if it’s quiet. Who wants to be the first person to start up a conversation in a silent room? It feels like everyone can hear you; it’s hard not to be self-conscious.

It’s actually much easier to do if there’s a light soundtrack in the background. Not too loud, not too invasive or too upbeat, but a sort of cocktail party medley. Music fills the empty spaces and warms up the room. Music give you a little cover, yours isn’t that conversation sticking out like a sore thumb. It lessens the degree of self-consciousness and actually aids the level of conversation – if, of course, the music is playing at the right decibel level.

When people think about attending a workshop or a training – especially a professionally focused event – they don’t expect to hear music. This might be why it can be particularly effective for setting the tone for such an event. If people walk into the room and there’s music playing, already they can sense it’s going to be a different kind of experience. In terms of innovation, that’s what we want. A different kind of meeting is more likely to lead to a different result.

Here’s how using music can make a difference:

Music can impact people’s mood. A research study at the University of Windsor suggests that listening to music while working may lead to a positive mood change, which in turn improves the quality of the work performance and creative output.

Music inspires divergent thinking.  Another research study found that creativity was higher for people who listened to upbeat, happy music (i.e., classical music high on arousal and positive mood) while performing the divergent creativity task, than for those who did the task in silence.

Music fills the empty spaces. A too-silent room can feel a bit like a morgue, cold and filled with echoes. If there’s a moderate level of music playing, it’s easier for people to start talking. It also makes it more comfortable for people not to talk.

Energize participants when they’re a bit tired. After several hours of steading thinking, conversing and working, people can start to feel low or tired. Music can raise the energy level and keep things going at a productive pace. There’s even research, from the Stanford University Medical school, about how music moves the brain to pay attention.

Calm things down and give people space to think. Likewise, if the group is super agitated or wound up, music can soften the room and help people get grounded and tap into their own thought processes, rather than be distracted by the rest of the group. Brian Eno’s Ambient for Airports is ideal for this, and in his liner notes he distinguishes his music from conventional background music, used to brighten the environment by adding stimulus to it. According to Eno, “Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.”

Music distinguishes different segments of the workshop. I’ve created play lists to match the nature of the work that happens over the course of an event. Based on the tempo or the lyrics, it can reinforce the objectives of each stage of the program.

Mark the coffee breaks. Music can be used to indicate it’s time for a break, and to accompany the break. It keeps the energy up while people take leave of the room and when the break is over, signals that it’s time to return and get started again.

Makes reporting sessions less routine. Often our workshops include a segment during which participants make presentations of their thinking after going off and working in groups. There might be ten or more presentations in a row. This line-up can be tedious, so even just twenty seconds of music between presentations gives people a breather and changes the tone.

Music can inject humor into a workshop. If things are tense, we’ll select a song that helps people relax, or makes them laugh. We’ll find song titles that match the theme of the discussion. Sometimes during a final round of presentations, when each group needs to be given the exact same amount of time to make the case for their ideas, we’ll use music as a timer. When time is up, the music crescendoes for ten seconds until it’s so loud nobody can hear the speaker. That makes it impossible to creep overtime, and it’s a bit nicer than using a cane to haul someone off stage.

Not everyone responds positively to music, and certainly people respond differently to it, which is why we try to read the room to be sure our use of music is not distracting to the participants. In certain situations, we keep it very low, choosing only instrumental or ambient compositions. Some individuals can’t support any music, for them it inhibits their creativity or their focus, so then we turn it off. But usually the group responds positively, and because our playlists are fairly eclectic, we keep their attention by mixing it up and keeping them mildly entertained while still doing some serious thinking.

Sometimes, circumstances don’t permit the best use of music. Last week we facilitated a workshop in which the general meeting room wasn’t easily set up for plugging in. It had strange acoustics, and the speakers weren’t placed within reach of our music sources. Halfway through we could have re-arranged our equipment, but we had other priorities. The meeting still produced a solid result. But there were a few moments when we could have used a something to soothe, amuse or invigorate. A little light music is sometimes all it takes.


Know Further:

More about how music can energize meetings and enhance learning and classroom environments. How background music impacts introverts and extroverts. Its effect on learning. How different types of music can effect the brain. Tips for using music to be personally productive. The dark side of music: when you just can’t stop humming that earworm. How musicians use both sides of their brains. Einstein on music and art and creativity. Should you listen to music while doing intellectual work? It depends. If so, what kind of music should you avoid?