Listen Up!

The Romantic Notion of Music in the Workplace

Music on vacation is a luxury. Music at work is a necessity.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Music on vacation is a luxury. Music at work is a necessity.
A friend sent a terrific Pitchfork article to break up my workday monotony. Between doing the to-do items scribbled onto a notepad on my office desk, I read about a couple traversing North America for months at a time and how their travels were made more poignant because of the music they packed for the trip, dozens of CDs nestled into old school nylon carry cases. They listened to many of the CDs in their entirety, a modern day rarity. It all seemed so romantic.

My reading was interrupted by a call from a client whose patience with the process of my day job was at an all-time low. As the client’s griping shifted gears from low sputter to deathmobile, I imagined myself behind the wheel of my own vehicle, a Coachmen RV, with Khruangbin’s spacey “Dern Kala” flooding the cabin. In my daydream, my wife folds a bologna sandwich in half for me. She feeds a nubbin of processed meat to our dog, Tim, then passes the simple meal to me. No one’s speaking (or barking) in my daydream. We’re just munching happily to the trippy sounds of the far-out band.

Not to disparage the Pitchfork author (it is a moving tribute to music, travel and family) but the notion of a six-month excursion through the continent’s big cities and back roads seems romantic enough. Music assuredly heightened the mood, but you probably don’t need it to make more stirring the moment the morning sun shines coyly through the Rockies. You might need it to see the beauty in the sun shining off your 30-year-old office credenza on a Tuesday morning. You don’t need “Ode to Joy” to soundtrack catching a fish in a Washington state stream. It might be helpful at the end of an especially challenging day at the nine-to-five, particularly during these winter doldrums when no vacation time is in sight.

There are all sorts of studies about listening to music at work. They’re disjointed examinations, but when you jigsaw them together they create one clear picture that shows how efficient and creative one can be when music is prevalent at work. If you’ve ever pushed the lawnmower a little harder because The Vandals’ “GO!” (or, your favorite lawnmowin’ song) was streaming through your earbuds, then you know how it works. You don’t really need a scientific study. Just ask around. I questioned some Facebook friends and they happily shared the music that drives their workdays. One friend, Steve, told me this:

“I was an expeditor at a catering company. Just about all the women that worked there were from a nearby halfway house. None of them had easy lives and just about all of them wanted a second chance at a better life,” he shared. “Whenever we were overwhelmed by orders, I put on ‘Hit ‘Em Up.’ I could tell every one of them could relate to an upbeat track about getting even with a shitty dude. The song became a call to arms of sorts. Meaning we all had to move faster and get shit done. It was usually followed by ‘X Gonna Give It to Ya’ and ‘Move’ by Ludacris.”

Sometimes, it’s just about the beat, the sonic stuff you don’t need to pay much attention to in order to feel the effect. But a sharp lyric keeps you connected. If your job requires lots of verbal interaction with others, it might behoove you to listen to songs by someone like Matt Pless, whose “When the Frayed Wind Blows,” must have 1,000 words in it if there’s one. Or, maybe you dial up a Leonard Cohen track in search of something deeply poetic. When you walk into that two o’clock presentation, you’re ready to be awesomely verbose.

It’s fun to listen to music that provides an escape from the workplace. I’ll call up Rent Strike’s folk opera (and ode to Lord of the Rings) IX or maybe “Chemirocha” by South African band Bye Beneco to transport elsewhere. But, even as far away as I could get, I know I will never leave this work behind.

Quinton Trembath is a musician who lives and performs in Australia, which might as well be Mars in my experience. Koalas and giant spiders and other mysterious things reside there, I suppose. I do not imagine humans working there but they do, of course, and they feel the same as I do when I’m sitting in my office like a kid forced to finish homework before joining playtime outdoors. Trembath sings eloquently on the matter in a song called “Footscray.”

“What’s the point in making a living if you don’t feel alive?” he ponders as he blurs the line "between working hard and having a good time.”

Footscray is a suburb of Melbourne, in the shadow of its central business district. You can live relatively freely there but you’re always just a glance away from the city skyline and the job that beckons, if you work there. That’s what a working life is like anywhere in the world. You can go to the bar, take in a movie, cheer at the sporting event, you can even take a two-month trip in an RV across North America. Sooner or later work comes calling. It’s a notion that can be difficult to romanticize. Music can make it all seem more palatable. At times, music can make work a truly joyous occasion. As Quinton Trembath says for the lot of us scrolling through Spotify between phone calls and meetings, “I’m not working for a living, I’m living to make this work.”