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Does (Should) Your Lab Rock?

Does (Should) Your Lab Rock?

My PhD was a soul-less affair. It was also rock-less, jazz-less and pop-less. And all because my supervisor was of the opinion that music in the lab was a distraction that reduced concentration and our ability to do the job. “Rubbish!”, I thought, “Nothing helps you through a mindless task like splitting cells, pipetting or labelling like a bit of music”.

A 2005 study in the “Psychology of Music” Journal backs up my opinion, reporting that music increased the performance of software developers in both creative and routine tasks. But over the years I have found that while music in the lab does help alleviate the boredom in some situations, and even inspire you in others, it can also cause serious headaches.

Hell is other people’s music

Passive soundwaves can seriously damage mental health. What if your lab mates’ idea of wonderful music is the Titanic theme, Enya or Alanis Morissette (you know, the one who has no idea what ironic means)?

While they are working and warbling away to their favorite tunes, you could be trapped day in day out in a Music Hell that certainly won’t improve your productivity or your mood. And sometimes you just need silence in which to do your work – should you be forced to auditorily inhale if others want to partake? Probably not.

So it’s vital that your lab agrees on an audio policy that includes whether to allow  music in the lab. when it is allowed and what type, or how to agree on it.  At the top of the policy should be a cast-iron rule that if any one person in the lab doesn’t want the music to be on, then the sounds should be firmly switched off.

What to play

When the music is on, there is the small but thorny matter of what to play. The common but, to me, extremely depressing, solution is to go for a generic radio station. This is favored because these types of radio station cater for the lowest common denominator; they play music that not too many really people hate. But the huge downside this is the sort of music that no-one really likes either. It’s difficult to be inspired by bland pop, over-played oldies and a playlist that numbers in 10’s rather than 100’s. In my opinion, you’d be better off with no music at all.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Ideas like theme days, where everyone brings in a CD from their collection to match a given theme, or nominated DJs, where each person gets to plug their iPod into the speakers and take control of the music for a certain time, can be a lot of fun and create a sense of community in the lab. Or using services like LastFM or Spotify you can create customised, and even trained, playlists to suit the collective tastes of your lab. It doesn’t matter how you choose your lab music. It just has to be democratic and fair.

What about headphones?

Another possible solution is to use headphones to personalise and control your in-lab musical experience. This gets rid of many of the irritations with playing music in the lab, but creates its own problems because it isolates lab members from one and other, and the tinny sound of “Ironic” being played at full volume in a pair of headphones can be almost as annoying as the speaker-borne experience. So your lab’s audio policy should also deal with headphones.

So while music has its benefits in the lab, making sure that it doesn’t annoy, alienate or isolate other members of your lab takes a bit of consideration. Perhaps my PhD supervisor was right after all.

What do you think?

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  1. Suzanne on November 18, 2009 at 1:17 am

    LOL @ “we are not 16-year-old emo kids”

    We keep the music soft enough so that we can talk about our projects but loud enough that we can’t hear each other breathing. I can’t work in a musicless lab. I need something to nullify the background hum and chatter so I can focus.

  2. Ranga on November 17, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I think music helps a lot in the lab. We agree that soothing relaxing music (mostly instrumental) played at a low volume (like how they play in lounge) is much helpful in our daily routines. Examples: Zero 7, Thievery corporation, Cafe Del Mar, Cafe Ibiza, Jack & Johnson, etc. This also creates a sense of community in the lab, and we talk to each other a lot rather than getting lost in their ipods. So the type of music played in the lab, as you mentioned is very important.

  3. Nick on November 17, 2009 at 5:39 am

    @Duygu. I suppose the drawback of headphones is that although you can of course communicate when you need to, you can miss out on the background communication. Sometimes listening in on another conversation that’s going on in the lab can spark a good discussion or a new idea. However, the are great when you have an hour’s worth of routine stuff to do and you don’t want anyone to hassle you! 🙂

    @Jode. Sesame St tunes? Ouch, now that is music hell!

  4. Jode on November 17, 2009 at 1:26 am

    To me, the silence of a no-tunes lab is painful. I also think music stimulates creativity and lends energy to the lab. But I also had a labmate that loved to listen to chanting monks, Sesame Street soundtracks, and French rap (and he couldn’t speak French). No, I’m not exaggerating – I would have happily listened to “Ironic” on repeat after a day of that. After that we realized that we needed some common denominator in music selection, and hopefully it wouldn’t be the least common denominator.

    I think the best route is to set up an old computer with decent speakers and stream Pandora through it. Usually the group can agree on a handful of songs that exist in the overlap of their Venn diagrams, and Pandora can then create stations around each of these choices. If the lab has a separate room for the desks or just an extra room that can be kept as a ‘quiet room’, then even better.

  5. Duygu on November 17, 2009 at 1:09 am

    I started my Ph.D. studies in a very strict professor’s lab who did not let people have earphones but he somehow was fine with music being played in the lab on a CD player. His reasoning was that earphones made people isolated. I strongly disagree with this. I think it is better to let people have earphones and listen to the music they like (because, yes, hell is other people’s music for me!) In the new lab I am working in, there is freedom in every sense, but people choose to use mp3 players with earphones but they do interact when they need to, because in the end we are not 16-year-old emo kids, we are grown-ups who communicate when they need to. 🙂

    I enjoy listening to a wide range of music (from death metal to jazz to weird electronic stuff) and I cannot expect other people to like these. Also two of my favorite albums ever (Dream Theater’s Scenes From A Memory and the rock-opera Jesus Christ Super Star) can easily disturb or offend people. 🙂

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