Do You Listen While You Work?

Aug 20th, 2008 // 47 Comments

REM-Finest-Worksong--48684-991.jpgSomething that came up in the comments section of the post on that new TV On The Radio song (which you should really listen to if you haven’t already): While the numbers would seem to indicate that many Idolator readers visit the site while they’re bored at the office, a fair amount of people said that they don’t listen to music at work, and that while they can read the site when they’re on the clock, they tend to wait until they get home to listen to audio and stream video online. I wonder what sorts of experiences those of you who are employed have had with this–I’ve actually had a few over the years, thanks to the different office environments I’ve worked in.

At first, I had a stream of jobs where working with headphones on was normal; I was an “information professional” and wearing headphones in a way indicated that I was focused on the task at hand, and not wanting to be bothered. Then I moved into a position where I had to be present at all times both mentally and aurally; a lot of communication in the newsroom where I worked was done via across-the-room shouts (Let’s face it: Yelling “hey, Sammy Sosa’s bat is corked!” is a pretty expedient way of breaking news.) My music listening during work plummeted to almost nil; it was reserved for Sunday mornings, when I was the only person in the office and there was generally nothing big going on, and my back-and-forth commute to the office.

Now, it’s a little different. Because of the pace of this job, I often find myself listening to either old reliables or stuff that isn’t music at all; I save most of my non-newsworthy listening for my off hours, if only because I feel like I can concentrate on the whole body of work more, and not get any lyrics mixed into whatever bon mots I happen to be writing at the time.

So, what’s your music-at-work story? Do you have permanent headphone-hair? Is there a communal set of speakers that you can sometimes commandeer? Or do you work in a place where the porny ads on Rapidshare and ZShare make even those sites OK for workaday consumption, as long as you’re wearing headphones? And how has listening to music while work affected your listening habits aesthetically, if it has at all? Last week I put forth the following theory about bands of the milquetoast-indie ilk:

I’ve said this before, but my least favorite musical development these days is what I like to refer to as creative-professional indie: it’s designed to exist in the background, playing at a tasteful volume on the communal work iTunes at some well-designed office where all the men have square plastic glasses and all the women dress just smartly enough to be taken seriously. (This could be why the lyrics have license to be terrible, btw. Who’s paying attention?)

I’ve definitely been guilty of this kind of ambient-music abuse, of course. (Hey, it’s probably why I’m so eager to pinpoint it.)


  1. Ned Raggett

    I work in a library in a back office area and listen through my combined monitor/speaker setup without headphones — loud enough to hear things well, not so loud that it bugs everyone else nearby. Kinda perfect, really. I’ve only ever had one request to turn it down a bit in five years.

    As to WHAT I play, it’s everything and anything. Said complaint was about some formless Acid Mothers Temple thing, but the same person said at some other point she liked the Michael Gira solo disc I was playing because it reminded her of Johnny Cash. Go figure!

  2. MayhemintheHood

    I had never thought about it until the Tv on the Radio posting, but yeah, the numbers you posted represent me for sure. There’s rarely a time when i’m not listening to something at work, and as far as Idolator goes, I basically only visit this site while at work. My “ambient background” choice is talk radio(sports or Adam Carolla), but i’m constantly putting that on pause any time a streaming song/video is put up on a site I regularly visit. I have my own office though, so that helps, but even when I didn’t, at a previous job, i’d still have headphones on most of the day.

    I think aesthetically speaking, that’s kind of an interesting question. I think a lot of times when I read sites like Pitchfork/PTW/Sterogum/etc, I feel like the person writing about the track is listening to these songs on headphones while stoned, making even lame songs sound decent. But for me, a lot of times at work I just have one earbud in, and i’m doing some work while listening. I have come to feel that if a song doesn’t sound good in this situation, then it’s really not worthwhile to me.

  3. NeverEnough

    Another library person here. I listen to BBC 6Music all day. It keeps me sane.

  4. RaptorAvatar

    At the corporate office I work in, I’m not supposed to have earbuds in when I’m out in the cube farm portion of the office. However, I’m looseley supervised enough that I can generally have them in anyhow (assuming I’m working on actual work at my desk) unless I’m fucking around on the internet (45%+ of my day) in which case I need to be able to hear if anyone in coming. They’re allowed in the file room, where I spend at least 1-2 hours a day, plus filing is mindless enough that I can give whatever I’m listening to a decent amount of attention. However, streaming audio or video on the clock is not going to happen period. I usually catch up on that stuff/steal whatever albums are getting props as soon as I get home while pregaming whatever I’m planning to do that evening. Outside of work, music depends on what I’m working on. If I’m writing or reading, something will be on. If I’m editing/doing sound design/working on my own music/ I can’t really have two things competing for my hearing, so it’s generally off.

  5. bcapirigi

    I’m in a bookstore, in a four-person office that’s set up in a back hallway. We’ve all got our own speakers on, usually, and it must be that way because the woman on my left only listens to adult contemporary aol radio, which means that if I don’t have my own music on I get Against All Odds stuck in my head every day. And yesterday the woman on my right was listening to JoJo.

    As for what I listen to, my itunes folder is so large that I’ve actually done things like deleting programs that are essential to my job. But it’s mostly bouncy pop stuff–right now, I’m listening to the FourFour New Jack Swing mixes.

  6. LeighBlack

    I can’t listen to anything streaming on the internet, or anything at all really, since they have the sound disabled on all of our computers. I do listen to my iPod most of the day, but with only one ear bud in. I need to be able to hear people approaching my desk so I can switch from surfing back to something work related. ;)

  7. Al Shipley

    Yeah, maybe I’m in the minority in that I work in an office where the phone is constantly ringing and it’s hard enough to hear calls over bad lines or background noise without music playing, but I just can’t imagine actively listening to and enjoying music at work. Plus I work with a wide age range so we’d never be able to agree on anything to listen to anyway.

    The majority of my music listening is done by myself (in the car or at home), and I feel like it’s a necessity, just because I’d bug anyone else with at least half of my choices. Now and then when I’m in the car with my wife and/or somebody else for long stretches of time I do the iPod DJ thing and it’s fun to try to find things everyone present can enjoy. But if I had to worry about what other people liked hearing all day, I’d spend way too much time listening to “safe” stuff that I’m not actually that into but can tolerate.

  8. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    I mostly work with data, not people, so I can have headphones on all day without a problem. I listen to my iPod about 3 hours out of the workday. Problem is that my office blocks streaming audio and video because of bandwidth concerns, so anything that’s linked on Idolator, or any other site, I can’t listen to or watch. I read the site during the workday, and try to remember anything that grabbed my interest so I can check it out once I get home.

  9. Eugene Langley

    As I can’t stream anything at work, much of my outside of work life revolves around trying to remember which of the things I read about at work I wanted to listen to when I read about them at work.

  10. Al Shipley

    @Al Shipley: As if my last post somehow magically summoned him to, the one guy in my office who occasionally puts on music is now annoying me with Norah Jones. I don’t even generally dislike Norah Jones, I just hate when people put barely audible pleasant tunes on for the sake of background music.

  11. mexiback

    I work at home since two years ago, so it’s like iTunes party shuffle all day long! I just to listen more to whole albums but the concept of the you-now-what-you’re-getting grabbed some months ago. Before that I worked at offices where it was okay to have some music at a reasonable volumes, so I was always banging some actual cd’s, the winamp (OMG I know) and some Launchcast.

  12. mexiback

    This is what I ACTUALLY tried to say, sorry people:

    I work at home since two years ago, so it’s like iTunes party shuffle all day long! I used to listen more to whole albums but the concept of the you-now-what-you’re-getting random grabbed me some months ago. Before that I worked at offices where it was okay to have some music at reasonable volumes, so I was always banging some actual cd’s, the winamp (OMG I know) and some Launchcast.

  13. D.R. Mosby

    I’m a computer programmer, and in my work environment it’s permissible for us to listen to music on headphones. As for what I listen to, it’s mostly new music – I’ll spend a few hours on the weekend gathering up a batch of MP3′s (from Stereogum, etc.) – I’ll put them on a memory stick, take them to work, and during the week I’ll sort through it all to see what I like. (Sometimes I’ll check out Morning Becomes Eclectic if I’ve exhausted the batch of music that I brought from home.) At times, though, it becomes overwhelming to try to absorb so much new music, so when that happens, that’s when I switch back to the “old reliables”.

  14. tfish77

    I actually just wrote a blog post about this last week: []

    I do mostly web development work, and I am absolutely unable to function work-wise without listening to music. I work from home most of the time so I just use my speakers, but at previous jobs I was rarely without my headphones. I can’t listen to anything with talking (like the news or C-SPAN, even though I love C-SPAN) while I’m working, I find it too distracting. But work is a great time to listen to all the stuff I’ve recently added to my collection.

  15. Jon Can Dance

    As I am fortunate enough to have my own office, I have music playing all day, much to the chagrin of my thin-walled neighbors.

    However, I don’t stream music because we have very limited bandwidth. I actually get to yell at people we catch streaming. Good times.

  16. Anonymous

    I can’t seem to actively listen when I’m doing anything else and background music tends to distract me from the task at hand, so music is relegated to post-work time. Plus, I’m on the phone a lot of the day. However, I occasionally have a ridiculous commute (5 hrs a day — Phila. to NY and back) so I have plenty of time to digest that new Oneida album (kind of disappointing!).

    And you might be able to find your way around some bandwidth filters — at least I did on the Megabus.

  17. El Zilcho!

    I have speakers, and can listen to things at a reasonable volume. Usually, I’m not listening, because I have to answer the phone a lot and sound professional. But Friday afternoons I tend to play more music.

  18. Chris Molanphy

    This whole thread (a good one, BTW) reminds me of my first experience in ambient office music, back in 1992. The big lesson: the office stereo is a horrible idea.

    [Quickly: current arrangement is a small open-plan office where I can't play my own stuff out loud but the boss is quite tolerant of headphones. But I need to concentrate a lot, so I limit it for my own sake.]

    Anyway, the ’92 story: I was 20, working for the summer at a catalog design house in one of the hipper districts in Chelsea. Open-plan office, pretty slick. And when my young/cool uncle got me the job (yeah, nepotism) he told me one of the coolest features was the stereo the office shared, which pumped music across the whole floor. “Bring some CDs!” he encouraged me.

    So I did. (I remember bringing Uncle Tupelo on day one.) And kept bringing ‘em, three or four a day. And quickly, the office began to resent the kid who always brought in stuff and knew when the disc was about to end and ran up to put in another one. What can I say, I was 20, and I thought I’d be the office DJ.

    So about 2-3 weeks into the job, I understandably got reprimanded by my boss. (Not my uncle, obviously.) I felt appropriately embarrassed and ashamed, and I promised the boss I’d stop commandeering the stereo.

    From then on, I would bring in discs and leave them on the stereo in the morning, but I wouldn’t touch the stereo at all. Some days, one or two of my discs would make the rotation, sometimes not. I found the lowest-common-denominator stuff was what got spun, natch.

    So one day mid-summer, my buddy at the desk next to mine starts discussing the Beatles with me. And I say I’m a pretty big fan. “Wow, so you have all their stuff,” he says. Yeah, I say, “and tell you what, I’ll start bringing in Beatles CDs.”

    So each day, starting with Please Please Me, I brought in one Beatles CD and left it on the stereo. And remember, my personal new rule is, I can’t touch the stereo. But inevitably, each day the Beatles disc would get played — what’s more mass-appeal/LCD than the Beatles? Someone would always put it on.

    So we’re getting near the end of the series, probably around the White Album, and this nasty pseudo-hipster lady I’d never liked from the layout room comes over to me and says, “Hey, Chris, are you the one putting on the Beatles every day?!” And I say, well, no, I’m not putting it on, but yeah, the discs are mine. “Well stop it! I’m sick of the fuckin’ Beatles.” I got in trouble again! And I hadn’t even been putting the stuff on!

    When the place called me in to work my spring break the next year, I brought a discman and headphones and never shared CDs with the office again.

  19. fabulousrobots

    In my last two jobs, I had my own office or cube so I was able to listen to CDs (and later, my iPod) all day.

    Now I work in a big open room with several other people and we all listen to music at our desks and we can’t hear anyone else’s most of the time. I can’t pay attention when I listen to podcasts or regular NPR programs (busy phones), so I stick to WOXY and some other things on NPR (concerts mostly). On lunch breaks I usually put on my iPod and go for a walk–it’s one of my favorite ways to hear a record for the first time, when there’s a beautiful cityscape around me.

    My office is laid back so sometimes I dance at my desk or turn up certain things and no one minds. But, I don’t listen to music linked on sites usually because I can’t trust that the volume won’t be distracting and make everyone realize I AM ON THE INTERNET during work hours.

  20. revmatty

    I have my laptop with party shuffle going in itunes all day at work, volume at a level that I can hear it fine but it doesn’t bother my coworkers too much. Streaming media and/or downloading MP3s (even free ones) is an immediate termination offense.

    For those who commented about trying to remember what stuff they saw on idolator or other sites that they wanted to watch/listen to/download: Foxmarks is a great tool for keeping your home/work browsers in sync. Before I discovered that I just kept a text file open all day and pasted in all the links I wanted to check from home.

  21. Charlie Kerfelds Jetsons Tee

    As stated in the other thread, I used to work as a legal assistant at a law firm in Boston. Not only did my dictation headphones allow me to listen to whatever I wanted, but they also made it look like I was doing actual work.

    Win-win, for sure.

  22. The Illiterate

    My office is fine with either headphones or speakers (as long as it’s not too loud): in fact one of my bosses often complains that it’s too quiet in the office and asks me to turn the music up. I usually put on headphones when 1) I have a lot of boring repetitive database type stuff to do, or 2) my co-workers are having some inane conversation from cubicle to cubicle, with me in the middle. I do listen to streams occasionally, but our connection goes through a corporate firewall and is pretty slow.

  23. PeterBjorn&Yawn

    I’m in charge of playing music for everyone through our Sonos system. Right now I’m playing a bunch of Deerhunter, live Mingus, Fleetwood Mac, and Bone Thugs. People love the new Diplo/Santogold mixtape too.

    But folks can have their headphones on all day if they want. I acquire and listen to/filter most of my music here at my desk, and only the worthwhile stuff makes it back to my place.

  24. bcapirigi

    I just thought I’d mention that the second my CD ended Against All Odds came on the speakers of the woman to the left of me. Who’s at lunch right now, anyway.

  25. the rich girls are weeping

    I’m more headphone-centric when I’m working on a big book (as I am now), most of the time, though, I need to be really present because I manage a team of writers who have questions and I interact with a bunch of other editors all day. At my previous job, though, the combination of mind-numbing work and a great iTunes network (this was Austin, everyone had great music to share!) kept us all silently lashed to our PCs. (It also helped that the IT guys were total music geeks and seriously enabled us.) We had mix competitions and swaps and everything.

    I’ve never had a job where I could listen to music over speakers. I think that might actually be distracting.

    Right now, the internet connection in my office is terrible, so some days I can stream, and some days I can’t. I pretty much exclusively listen to my iPod, then; I’ve been half-assedly djing a friend’s bartending shift at a loathsome bar on the LES recently, so I have tons of excellent individual tracks loaded up (anything from like, 30′s cabaret to someone’s remix they did yesterday afternoon), and I just let the thing shuffle away…

    That being said, I just listened to Girls Aloud’s “Biology” like, six times in a row. I will never be sick of that song.

  26. MConnor

    In a cube farm, speakers set really, really low.

  27. scarletvirtue

    I listen to music at work – usually through a program like Yahoo! Launchcast, where I can get a rather schizophrenic mix of music (Nina Simone, followed by The Dixie Chicks, then Metallica). Much easier than having to change a CD every hour.

    I’ve tried listening to NPR or the BBC, so I can actually get smart or something … but, the concentration required for it just isn’t there.

  28. Anonymous

    I have my own office. I can listen to whatever the fuck I want, whenever I want.

  29. Anonymous

    i have my own office as well. so it depends on the day. if they day’s work is really light- database management, working on minutes from meetings- i actually can watch movies and tv. if it requires thinking, i listen to music. it’s pretty awesome.

  30. Anonymous


    Jesus woman, will you please stop with the marketing analysis? Or at least throttle it down a bit? I like you. I really do, but you are making me want to slap you.

    And the REST OF YOU- wtf man??? Are you that pliable??? I’ve been reading this site since its inception and I’ve never seen MJ so ‘curious’ and ‘inquisitive’ and fascinated by our likes/dislikes and ability to utilize IDO.

    Wake up white people!

    (and slowburn- you sound like a tool).

    Love, CHRIS!

  31. Maura Johnston

    @cmarsh: dude. have you ever heard of a ‘slow news day’? that term pretty much defines ALL OF AUGUST. and it, along with a few other factors like me being, i don’t know, CURIOUS, may explain what you see as an upswing in questiony posts. i’m not trying to be some sort of marketing-bot. i don’t really have the time or energy to put up any sort of facade, y’know?

    (also, what is ‘ido’? i really have no idea.)

    love, MAURA!

  32. Ned Raggett

    @cmarsh: Are you that pliable???

    Only after suitable preparation.

  33. SAShepherd

    Tool here, too: Office, so whatever I want. Having said that, it probably goes without saying that I tend to bring in something that isn’t too terribly distracting. And because I’m up and around the office a lot, anything that requires long periods of uninterrupted listening really isn’t that pleasant to listen to.

    Of course, I usually don’t listen to “terribly distracting” music anyway, so it’s not like it’s impinging on my music choice much.

    (Note: above statement is not to be read as “Dude listens to Norah Jones all the damn time.”)

  34. BigRicks

    I get to listen to pretty much whatever I please all day long in my office, as I am the only one in it. I keep it at a decent decibel only because I have to answer the phones and have the occasional client pop in (isn’t insurance wonderful). The highlight of my day is when I turn off the telephones at 5:00 and crank up the volume while I get some real work done.

    Previously, when I worked in offices with others, I’d tend to stream music and keep the volume low, as earphones and telephones tend to mix poorly.

  35. Anonymous

    @cmarsh: Yawn. Where are your beta-blockers, dude?

    Also, we’re not all white here. Stop projecting.

  36. Anonymous

    Maura, I don’t wanna fight tonight.

    I…I don’t know. Maybe the stress of everything is just getting to me. I feel like I don’t even know who I am sometimes anymore….

    We’ll talk when I get home.



    (and shut up slowburn I don’t even have the patience for you right now).

  37. DaeSu

    I work at a university, and I listen to music all day long. I usually keep one earphone out (which kinda screws the stereo aspect, of course), and I’d be bored to tears without it. And I can listen to anything from gospel to hip-hop to alternative to Korean film soundtracks.

  38. the rich girls are weeping

    At least Maura’s not as pandery as the WSJ Juggle blog or any of the BusinessWeek blogs — “Tell us what you think, readers!” after ever single post. PUKE.

    I actually like reading other people’s responses to stuff like this. So there.

  39. katesilver

    It’s nice to be in a job that’s pretty much on my own, researching and editing, so I listen to the iPod, Charlie Rose episodes (via video), Marc Riley’s Brain Surgery on BBC 6 (which is Peel-like, with guests and vintage Peel Sessions). And responding to the earlier post, I also download at work. My desk is near a music publication, so I’m sure that’s okay.

  40. amyk

    I work in a hospital, but a weird hospital (we have robots and dogs) and have an office. I listen to BBC6, The Current and some NPR. The other day I listened to the World Service, but mostly BBC6. As long as I keep the volume low I can listen all day.

    I’m not aloud to download or store any music so I’m a streaming girl.

  41. Michaelangelo Matos

    I worked in kitchens right out of high school. I would hog the stereo routinely, especially when I was the only person working in an area, which was often. If more than one was working we’d rotate tapes. That was often a lot of fun. My last food-related job was making waffle cones and doing other prep work for an ice creamery (Sebastian Joe’s in Minneapolis, AMAZING ice cream, the Marionberry D.C. Nut is still my favorite flavor ever), and would often work w/headphones on. My next job was at a nightclub, which was all music all the time. I moved to Seattle and worked at a weekly paper; I used headphones all the time there, except at night when no one was around, when I’d crank the speakers. My last real job outside of freelancing was in an office of a music website where, paradoxically, I heard less music than at any of my other jobs. Now I freelance full time and play stuff out loud in my living room at moderate volume most of the time. Occasionally I will go to a coffeehouse or library and use headphones.

  42. SAShepherd

    @Michaelangelo Matos: I’d disagree and say Raspberry Chocolate Chip was better, but that’s only because I ordered it every time I went and never tried anything else. So perhaps I’m not the best judge here.

  43. Chris B.

    I work in an office and don’t listen to too much music – mostly on my iPod (but that’s kind of rare too) – definitely no streaming. I used to read this site all the time while on the clock (hitting refresh every 15 minutes or so) and then last week the corporate firewall blocked it (along with Stereogum, Gawker and a few other sites I regularly visit).

  44. dyfl

    At a publishing company here. Everybody does their own thing for music, on computer speakers (no headphones — we spend a pretty fair amount of time on the phone, so). There’s a fair amount of cooperative iTunes library sharing as well. Many of the offices are shared by two people, so the only real barriers are general workplace tastefulness (though plenty of people push that envelope) and not driving your roommate nuts. Mine’s out today, which means it’s time for a gay dancepop extravaganza instead of the alt-rock on which we both happily agree (lots of Afghan Whigs in this particular corner of the office).

  45. Monkeyrash

    We listen to XM radio at work, I am in charge (of the radio). Usually it’s alternative but if I’m late, some one will inevitably turn on top 40 or some rubbish like that. Doesn’t last long. Sometimes we cycle through the decades, or switch from classic to metal to alternative. Once in a while we break out in dance.

  46. usedwigs

    I shut my office door and listen to some quality indie rock on either:

    WOXY – The greatest online radio station ever! great mix of new and old indie, punk…

    or XMU or Fungus on XM radio:

  47. cassidy2099

    I work in a radio station so there’s music and sound emanating from just about every office(well, not sales). I usually throw the ipod on shuffle and play stuff through my little speakers. I used to shy away from harder stuff, but lately I’ve stopped caring so much. A few weeks ago I was running through the Metallica discography and people were sticking their heads into my office to explain and debate certain albums. (Did you know no one likes Load?)

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