Listen While You Work: Who Does, And Why? 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.
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Listen While You Work: Who Does, And Why?

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Listen While You Work: Who Does, And Why?

Listen While You Work: Who Does, And Why?

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Plenty of workers say they couldn't do their jobs without some music in the background. To coincide with the new NPR music online series, Neda Ulaby talked to people whose bosses allow music at work to find out what they listen to.

NEDA ULABY: The Big Bear Cafe in Washington, D.C., is the opposite of Starbucks. It's an open, airy space uncluttered with knickknacks for sale and filled with music that reflects the baristas unconventional tastes.

Mr. KRISTON CAPPS (Barista/Musician/Writer): It's Mulatu Astatke. I believe that's the way you pronounced his name. He's a very prominent Ethiopian jazz artist.

ULABY: Barista Kriston Capps is a writer and musician but he frequently learns about music from his co-workers.

Mr. CAPPS: I picked up Polar Bear after Reggie played it one day.

Mr. REGGIE ELLIOTT (Barista): This is a jazz band called Polar Bear.

ULABY: Barista Reggie Elliott says Polar Bear is more interesting than the predictable cafe swirl of Miles Davis and the Buena Vista Social Club.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Very experimental. Lots of horns, drums. Kind of old-school, but also sound very new, and they're awesome, and they're very obscure. So, you know, you don't want to play the same thing that everyone else is playing.

ULABY: Elliott and Capps have something in common with a group of men and women about 3,000 miles away. Periscope Studios in Portland, Oregon is home to about 20 comic book artists. They all work together in one big room, says Steve Leiber, who wrote a graphic novel called Whiteout.

Mr. STEVE LEIBER (Author, Whiteout): When you're acting as a DJ for the room, you try to pick up on the rhythm of the room. If everybody's aggravated, you want to play something that'll maybe calm them down.

Unidentified Man #1: The Beta Band.

Mr. LEIBER: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: Parker has completely changed the room's rhythm by playing Dry the Rain from the Beta Band, exactly.

Unidentified Man #1: It always works.

Unidentified Man #2: It never fails.

ULABY: Parker is Jeff Parker, who's worked on series like X-Men for Marvel Comics. He uses music to channel the feelings of his characters.

Mr. JEFF PARKER (Writer): Last year, I was writing a miniseries called Agents of Atlas for Marvel, and I had one issue where the team all fell apart. And it was supposed to be the depressing part of the story, so I just kept Radiohead on the entire day while I was writing that script. And it worked beautifully. It really kept me in mood. I didn't get off-message with it.

ULABY: Staying on-message via music sounds familiar to Mike Conely. A retired air-traffic controller who prefers to be called Hammer. He's campaigning full-time in Albuquerque, New Mexico on behalf of Barack Obama.

Mr. MIKE CONELY (Retired Air-Traffic Controller): If I know I got to 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.

Mr. BILLY JOEL: (Singing) Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio...

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

Mr. ALAN JACKSON (Singing) Work day passes like molasses in wintertime...

Mr. CONELY: George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley - I got all their music there. I really like that music. 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, straight to the task.

ULABY: Mindless, repetitive labor more than anything else screams for a soundtrack. I wanted to interview someone who cleans houses for this story. But every single cleaning company said, they do not allow their employees to listen to music while they work. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) It's five o'clock somewhere...

MONTAGNE: And to hear suggestions from NPR's music new series, Listen While You Work, visit

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