Listen While You Work: Who Does, And Why?

'Listen While You Work'

a boom box by a computer
Dan and Erin Sweeney/via Flickr

What better place to listen to music than at work? Not every job allows a refreshing blast of music, but some demand it. Many workers get a kick out of sharing songs with their customers or coworkers, while others listen privately, if only to shut out the din.

The Big Bear Cafe in Washington, D.C., is the opposite of Starbucks: It's not cluttered with knickknacks for sale and filled with music that reflects the baristas' unconventional tastes.

Take Mulatu Astatke. The Ethiopian jazz musician is credited with being the first African student at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He played with Duke Ellington, and his music can be heard in the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. You can also hear it at the Big Bear.

Barista Kriston Capps is a writer and musician, but he frequently learns about music from his coworkers.

"I picked up Polar Bear after Reggie played it one day," Capps says. Reggie is fellow barista Reggie Elliot; Polar Bear is a British band that won the BBC's Rising Jazz Star Award a few years back.

"Very experimental," Elliot says. "Lots of horns, drums. Kind of old-school, but also sounds very new, and they're very obscure. You don't want to play the same thing that everyone else is playing."

Inspiring Your Coworkers

Periscope Studios in Portland, Ore., is home to about 20 comic-book artists. They all work together in one big room, says Steve Lieber, who illustrated the graphic novel Whiteout.

"When you're acting as a DJ for the room," Lieber says, "you try to pick up on the rhythm of the room. If everyone's aggravated, you want to play something that'll maybe calm them down."

The tune "Dry the Rain," by The Beta Band, can do that, according to Lieber's co-worker, Jeff Parker. He's worked on series such as X-Men for Marvel Comics. Parker says he uses music to channel the feelings of his characters.

"Last year, I was writing a miniseries called Agents of Atlas for Marvel, and I had one issue where the team all fell apart. It was supposed to be the depressing part of the story, so I just kept Radiohead on the entire day," Parker says. "It really kept me in the mood. I didn't get off message with it."

Inspiring Yourself

Staying on message via music sounds familiar to Mike Conely. He's a retired air-traffic controller who prefers to be called Hammer. He's campaigning full-time in Albuquerque, N.M., for Barack Obama.

"If I gotta go out and do something inspirational, like a union meeting or something, I might listen to Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire,' " Conely says. "It's got a really upbeat thing going on."

But when Hammer is doing something mundane, like copying fliers or scanning documents, he listens to his favorite kind of music: country.

"George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley... I got all their music," he says. "If you got the music playing in the background, it'll keep your mind working instead of just going straight to the task, straight to the task, straight to the task."

Mindless, repetitive labor — perhaps more than anything else — screams for a soundtrack. So NPR's Neda Ulaby wanted to interview someone who cleans houses for this story. But every cleaning company she called said that they do not allow their employees to listen to music while they work.

Correction Oct. 10, 2008

We incorrectly said Steve Leiber was the writer of the graphic novel "Whiteout." He was actually the illustrator.