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A brief history of music in the workplace

These days, a whole range of workplaces regularly feature background music, and it is not unusual to see employees with their headphones in as they work. However, this was not always the case, and music in the workplace has had an interesting history.

19th Century

Records show that the 19th century was full of workers, particularly labourers, singing while they worked. One study of handloom weavers in Lancashire found that they frequently sang in time with the clicking of their shuttles, and even developed their own “saucy type of song” to pass the time. It wasn’t all saucy ditties, however; child labourers would often sing hymns and carols to keep themselves awake and alert.

However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, singing in factories fell into sharp decline, drowned out by the sounds of the machinery. Some factories in the quieter industries tried to work around the noise in various ways. Some hired women to sing among the workers in the factories, in the hopes that they would boost employee morale, while others opted to hire orchestras for the company and encouraged their workers to form glee clubs to sing together.

Around the same time, the first trade union songs began to pop up, encouraging workers to unite and fight for better working conditions and taking satirical pot shots at industry bosses. Railway workers in particular developed a vehement and angry repertoire of songs, whose lyrics told of the high numbers of dead and maimed employees in the industry. Unsurprisingly, these songs faced strong political censorship as they were seen to cause trouble and threaten to destabilise their industries and bosses. Workers caught singing trade union songs were often immediately dismissed from their job: as one historian put it, “to sing meant the sack”.

20th Century

Music in the workplace declined as industry grew, but things changed in 1940. That year, the BBC started broadcasting a show entitled Music While You Work, a half-hour segment of live music from a selection of carefully vetted tunes and musicians. This was in response to a Government suggestion that morale among industrial workers would be improved by daily broadcasts of cheerful music played in their factories; in turn, the boosted morale would cause an increase in productivity. This theory turned out to be correct, and the BBC continued to broadcast Music While You Work up until 1967!

There were two half-hour slots broadcast daily; one in mid-morning and the other in mid-afternoon, and the rules governing what kinds of music could be played were surprisingly strict. One memo from the BBC read as follows:

1. Banned completely - all numbers with predominant rhythm, insufficient melody, or other unsuitable characteristics. 2. Banned completely - numbers that are lethargic or unsuited to any speeding up of tempo. 3. Banned completely - all modern slow waltzes, due to their soporific tendencies.

Overly up-tempo songs were also vetoed, as there was an assumption that they would “have an unsettling effect on workers”, and, although the BBC favoured music which would encourage workers to whistle, sing, or hum along, a song which featured a clapping motif was banned in case it made workers bang their tools against the machinery and cause damage! Songs deemed to have “over fussy” arrangements were also banned, because they needed to be clearly audible over the tannoys in factories, and could not be drowned out by the noise of the factory itself.

Although the programme proved to be consistently popular with domestic listeners, Music While You Work was specifically targeted to factory workers. Because of this, a third slot was added in the late evening during the war to motivate workers on night shifts when munitions factories began to stay open for longer, and in fact some BBC staff considered the show a significant contributing factor to the war being won, as factory productivity increased by between 13-20% during transmissions.

21st Century

Nowadays, it is common practice to play music in workplaces, either for all employees to hear or via headphones individually, so as not to disturb other workers.

However, there are exceptions. For example, high-concentration jobs may not benefit so much from background music, as the sound can provide a distraction, so choice is key to getting the most out of music in the workplace.

According to Dr Anneli Haake, workers who have music imposed upon them feel stressed and trapped, as they can look away from something they don’t wish to see, but cannot shut their ears off from something they don't want to hear. That being said, the ability to choose whether to listen to music or not means that workers who do choose to listen to it feel relaxed and in control as a result, and use it to manage other workplace distractions.

Join us next time when we count down the top three most effective types of music for optimum workplace productivity, and feel free to leave your workplace playlist suggestions in the comments, or send them to us over on Twitter!


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