Do You Enjoy The Music Playing At Work? Science Says: Probably Not!

Music has existed for nearly as long as humanity itself has existed. It has evolved from the tribal drums of war and celebration into the immense pool of humanity’s collective emotions and stories that we have today.

Evolution of music

It is widely accepted that listening to music can have a wide range of emotional, psychological, and physiological effects on the listener. For most people, music is an uplifting, positive experience that can be used to enhance focus, endurance, and creativity.

Here we can watch music therapist Cathleen Howard speak on how music can have actual physical effects on the human body and its use in medicine:

There have also been numerous studies on the positive effects of music on consumer spending habits and customer retention, which has to led to most, if not all, commercial retail chains playing some form of music in their stores.

However, in their attempts to appease consumers and provide a ‘pleasant shopping atmosphere’ is it possible that these companies are having a negative impact on their employees’ mental and physical health?

Everything is better with a soundtrack

Over the course of one week I have recorded my own responses to exposure to music in a retail environment as an employee and compared my findings with multiple academic sources. The conclusion: in many cases, listening to music in a workplace setting can have an adverse effect on not only the employee’s mental state, but also on the quality of work that employee performs.

There has been a wealth of research done on the effects of music and store atmospherics on consumer patronage. However, there is a startling lack of research on the effects of those atmospherics on the employees of said store. In my research I have only been able to find a handful of studies on this subject, none of which were up-to-date.

An actual picture of the landscape of research on employee health.

The most recent, reputable article I could find was from 2011. There were more recent studies, But I decided not to include them, as they were clearly poorly translated into English and likely not from reputable institutions. There is obviously a lack of research being done on the wellness of retail employees. However, the few publications I was able to find were quite illuminating.

Firstly, over the course of my own week-long media log the music played on the sales floor at my job accounted for 41.5 hours out of a total of 90 hours split between all of the different forms of media I consumed over the week. The next largest category was Youtube videos, which is where I get most of my news, at 15 hours. I found that the music at work usually elicited feelings of stress, annoyance, restlessness, and irritability. I also found that I wanted to avoid contact with customers because of my negative mood.

Secondly, while many studies show that music played in retail stores can have a positive effect on revenue, it may actually have a negative effect on employee productivity. In fact, it was found in both introverts and extroverts that background noise of any kind, including music, had a negative impact on the results of the cognitive tests in most cases (Cassidy 2007).

noise effect graph
LA represents soothing music. HA represents aggressive music. Cassidy & Macdonald, 2007.

Researchers suggest that these results are primarily due to a lack of musical diversity in the store and an individual employee’s resistance to boredom through monotony, which is dependent on several different personal factors (Skandrani 2011).

The vast majority of the songs used in the retail store where I work were popular rap and hip-hop songs. There has been political discourse on the lyrical content of rap music for decades, and one of the key themes in the discussion is the genre’s treatment of women. It is a common opinion that rap music is demeaning to women, and that the genre as a whole promotes a poor image of women.

In 2009 a poll was given to college students that asked how men refer to women in rap songs. The top 3 responses were ‘ho’ or ‘whore’ at 80% of the answers, ‘bitch’ at 60%, and ‘slut’ at roughly 30% (Dill, 2009, pg. 139). This can obviously have substantial negative mental and emotional effects on female employees, who could be exposed to this kind of message for upwards of 40 hours a week.

covering ears
Your mom may have covered your ears for a reason.

I do think there are many things that corporations can do to help these issues. Some solutions that spring to mind include: letting employees choose the station or playlist being played in the store, allowing the use of headphones for personal music, or even just rotating the radio station daily.

Most importantly, there needs to be more research done to protect the emotional, physical, and mental health of the employees of large corporations. Unfortunately, it seems like many of these corporations are more interested in the positive effect music can have on their revenue, and not the negative effect it can have on their employees.


Cassidy, G., & Macdonald, R. A. (2007). The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music,35(3), 517-537. doi:10.1177/0305735607076444
Dill-Shackleford, K. (2009). How fantasy becomes reality: seeing through media influence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skandrani, H., Mouelhi, N. B., & Malek, F. (2011). Effect of store atmospherics on employees reactions. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management,39(1), 51-67. doi:10.1108/09590551111104477
TEDxTalks. “How Music Can Heal Our Brain and Heart | Kathleen M. Howland | TEDxBerkleeValencia.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 May 2015,

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