What we hear can affect how we work

And whether your an office drone or factory worker, different types of music can help or hurt your performance.

Image of Healing at the Speed of Sound: How What We Hear Transforms Our Brains and Our Lives
Author: Don Campbell, Alex Doman
Publisher: Hudson Street Press (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

Kai Ryssdal: Of the five human senses, hearing is the first to develop. It happens in the womb. And we process audio all the time -- all day, all night, all year long. In short, our hearing never shuts off.

So, as most of you head back to work tomorrow after this holiday season, some insight into how what we hear might affect how we do our jobs.

Alex Doman is the co-author of the book "Healing at the Speed of Sound." Welcome to the program.

Alex Doman: Great to be here, Kai.

Ryssdal: So you've done a lot of work, actually, on sound and work and how people do their jobs. So let me run you my personal specifics: I'm a journalist, I spend a decent amount of time sitting in front of a computer in my office. It's a little solitary for the last couple of hours before deadline as I'm writing the show. Talk to me about what I ought to listen to.

Doman: Well I think first of all, Kai, you should listen to what works for you and what you enjoy, so it's not so much the musical genre as the underlying elements within the music -- the tempo or the pacing of the music, the frequency or tone spectrum of the music. So if you want something to help you really focus and concentrate, instrumental music in the baroque period of tempos of 50 to 60 beats per minute would be ideal.

Ryssdal: Sounds a little clinical.

Doman: Yeah, I think we first of all need to look at the intuitive -- what feels right to us is what's right. But we like to give people a direction in terms of what they can look at in creating their own personal playlist.

Ryssdal: All right, let me play something for you:

Mozart, "Allegro Spiritoso," I'm told by my producer. Here's the thing: That would make me fall asleep.

Doman: If that's not right for you, then that's not what you want to listen to. So when you're looking for something that feels good musically, what do you go to, Kai?

Ryssdal: Yeah, I don't know. I usually prefer something a little poppier, a little more modern, you know.

Doman: Maybe some Red Hot Chili Peppers as opposed to Mozart?

Ryssdal: Maybe, yeah. You know who I'm listening to lately? I'm listening to The National and I'm listening to Cults, I don't know if you know them.

Doman: I don't. My current favorite is I listen to a lot of Adele.

Ryssdal: Oh yeah. Mozart, if that's your thing, or The National, if that's my thing -- how does that physiologically help you out? What does it do for you?

Doman: Well, music has different effects, Kai. So one: it can entrain. So depending on the tempo of the music, it can entrain your body rhythms, your breath rate, your heart rate and help to change your body functions for the positive. It can set the tone and the pace for what you're doing. So you use music with positive lyrics if you want to improve mood, with faster tempos if you want to get moving and with slower tempos if you want to relax and de-stress yourself.

Ryssdal: Here's another question, though, I had about work and sound specifically: We are inundated with people talking in the next cube, with phones ringing, with trucks rattling by outside. What's the cost of sound to us?

Doman: Well the cost of noise is great, Kai. Noise may be one of our most pervasive pollutants. I recently reviewed a World Health report that indicated noise is the second-leading cause of environmental ill health, second only to air pollution in Europe.

Ryssdal: Well, what is one to do when daily life is the urban soundtrack, whether it's a subway train or a bus or your kids screaming in the backseat, you know?

Doman: There's so much we can do based on where we live. So if we're commuting on public transportation, we can use earplugs or noise-cancellation headphones; use personal listening devices to soundtracks that make us feel good is a way to block out some of that background noise; and do what we can to avoid obvious noise sources that are around us. That information of knowing that noise is a pollutant is the first step.

Ryssdal: Alex Doman is the founder and CEO of a company called Advanced Brain Technologies. He is the co-author with Don Campbell of a book called "Healing at the Speed of Sound." Alex, thanks a lot.

Doman: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Healing at the Speed of Sound: How What We Hear Transforms Our Brains and Our Lives
Author: Don Campbell, Alex Doman
Publisher: Hudson Street Press (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages
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That's good advice, but it sidesteps other pollution problems. Many people listen to music online. Just for the sake of argument, let's say that pathetic officials followed you around the Internet. Can music check abuses of government power? (Which bands write lyrics about privacy rights, and what happens to trespassers in a state of nature?)

Should businesses warn readers when their staff colludes with government? Do they have to tell customers that personal data was abused by senior employees? And are coverups cost-effective, or do businesses benefit from providing transparency themselves?

Also: Do men buy large headphones for any reason besides DJ skills?

When recommending personal listening devices to block or mask sounds, esp. on a subway train or a bus, it should also be recommended that users take care not to damage their hearing. Playing music louder than the surrounding environment can add stress, and with prolonged exposure, cause irreversible hearing loss. It is also important to consider why we need to mask the noise in the first place: that we can design our machines and buildings to avoid adding noise pollution to the soundscape. Finally, as John Cage (American composer, 1912-92) observed, instead of ignoring the "noises" all around us, actually listening to them can be fascinating ("especially the small sounds").

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