by Thomas Wailgum

Music Calms the Savage Beast, Makes the Heart Grow Fonder and Increases Worker Productivity

Feb 14, 20086 mins
IT Leadership

Don't forget about the power of music when it comes to inspiring your IT staffers to be more productive and innovative, says management recruiter and behavioral scientist Russ Riendeau.

His title may be senior partner at The East Wing Search Group, but Russ Riendeau is much more than that: He’s got a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences, is a motivational speaker and corporate entertainer, has authored five books on talent and career management, and is a musician (he sings and plays the guitar).


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Riendeau claims to have interviewed more than 72,000 business professionals since 1985, and one of the things he’s learned is that incorporating “good, positive music” into the workplace—whether it’s audio speakers in the parking lot, musical acts at corporate events or giving iPods to every employee—can have a dramatic, positive effect on employee productivity. A 2006 Harris Interactive survey found that of those workers who do listen to music at work, 79 percent felt that it improves their job satisfaction and productivity.

That’s because “music makes us feel good,” Riendeau says. The pleasing musical vibes release endorphins (chemicals inside humans that make us feel better) that allow employees to process information differently, enhance memory and improve recall and retention of newly learned tasks, he says. “Incorporating music into educational programs,” Riendeau says, “is an easy and inexpensive way to boost morale and improve work performance.”

Russ Riendeau
Russ Riendeau says music improves employee productivity.

Riendeau cites two books that demonstrate music’s innate, powerful and mysterious hold on humans. The first is This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, which examines the neurological effects of music and why songs get “stuck” with us. The second is Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, which illustrates how music can significantly alter people’s lives. Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum talked with Riendeau about creating a “jam room” for employees and why music is a great community-building activity for IT staffers.

CIO: Do you listen to music while doing interviews?

Riendeau: When I’m doing interviews I try to keep the music off. There are certain things I can do when I’m listening to music, but at least for me during the majority of the day, it’s hard to have music on in the background.

I do executive search for a living, and I find it to be a little distracting for me when I’m trying to talk to a candidate. When a good tune comes on, I may want to put [the candidate] on hold for a second [to listen to the song]. And I have to be careful about that.

I don’t necessarily associate endorphins with my work, but you say music can release endorphins and make workers more productive and boost morale. How so?

Based on research that has been done on music and learning, we know that when people listen to music—good, positive music—endorphins are the result of an excretion of a neurotransmitter in the brain. These are chemicals in the brain that change when positive experiences occur, for example when we exercise, when we’re with someone we like or when we’re in an entertaining capacity.

When we are listening to our favorite music, we are changing the blood chemistry in our physiology—the endorphins are excreted. As a result, it makes you feel better, and when you feel better, you perform better. And when you perform better, you develop a mastery of skills. Music helps us get to that level a little bit faster.

So why isn’t music on the top of every business’s agenda?

The hard part is that it’s very difficult for companies to measure this concept of using music and incorporating music into business. We know that if we raise the workbench six inches higher, the worker will become less fatigued because his shoulders won’t hang a certain way, and we know he’s going to be able to punch out more widgets per hour. We can measure the performance increase.

But how do we measure the performance increase when there’s music playing in the background? Or when you incorporate music into a corporate function? Or giving workers an iPod to listen to? It’s really hard to measure.

But what we do know is that people will talk about the music, people will seem more enthusiastic about their jobs. They’re changing what they think and talk about and what they do in the day because you’ve included music into it. So therefore, it changes people’s physiology and their brain chemistry. And you probably are getting better productivity because they feel better about themselves and their jobs. You’ll have happier people and less turnover.

Some of the things you suggest—creating a “jam room” full of musical instruments for employees, piping music into the parking lot or having a musician come in and speak to the group—are very community-oriented. A lot of IT staffers are people who do a lot of head’s down work by themselves. Is one environment more benefited by music than the other?

There are some people in IT who do nothing all day long but design, program or code with their iPods plugged in. It can be a very isolated and lonely world to work in. Music gives people a sense of connection in some way. But what I talk about is that it’s important to think of music as a team builder as well as a productivity builder.

In the IT world, if you get people who are very technical and analytical, it’s important that they not get locked in the world of just method and theory. You have to help them get into the world outside because it allows them to see things differently.

You mentioned using “good music.” Now we all know that musical tastes vary widely. So how does one go about selecting appropriate music for the office?

If you’re going to pipe in music, make sure you change tunes every day or every week so that you’re not alienating everybody. You might have Generation X-ers or people who like the old hip-hop jazz, so it’s important to change music to all genres. One week you’re playing ’50s tunes, next week you’re playing Rolling Stones, next week classical music. It’s about respecting the generational differences and playing different music when you can.

So are more and more businesses believing in the power of music?

There’s a groundswell of support for music when you look at how music has become so integral to every single business event and social function, corporate party, Super Bowl—just look at the example from Super Tuesday: Name a political candidate who didn’t have some kind of song as a theme?

When I’m in the business community and we’re setting up a corporate event, they always say: How do we get music into it? I did a program three weeks ago, and during it I invited some people to do percussion up on stage. One guy said: “I always wanted be a rock star.”