When Cheryl Brennan sits down in her blue chair at her cubicle, she needs to get down to business. But that can be difficult in a small...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Cheryl Brennan sits down in her blue chair at her cubicle, she needs to get down to business. But that can be difficult in a small office with five other workers, where she’s within earshot of every conversation of her colleagues. To help her focus, she puts on her white headphones and cranks up the heavy-metal stylings of AC/DC and Aerosmith.


“I zone out,” said Brennan, who works for the Defense Department in Seaside, Calif. “When the music is on, everything in the outside world goes away and I concentrate on what I do.”


From classical to electronica, rock ‘n’ roll to world music and country, workers across corporate America are plugging into their own portable music players and tuning out loud co-workers, office boredom and other workplace distractions. With the portability and popularity of iPods and other personal music devices, anecdotal evidence suggests more American workers are bringing their music to work.


“Employees are bringing their own music to work far more than in years past, simply because of the high-tech, portable players now available,” said Laura Stack, a productivity expert, author and trainer who consults for companies nationally. “A radio sitting on a desk is fast becoming a rarer sight.”


The trend raises questions whether music in the workplace is helpful to productivity and morale. Some experts wonder whether it further isolates workers who increasingly labor in rigid cubicle culture. And others ponder security and safety issues for some organizations.



Common sight



Perhaps nowhere is the music blasting more quietly than in Silicon Valley, where tech workers with ears plugged into an iPod or other portable music player are a common sight. Here in the valley that gave birth to the technology fueling the trend, music is endemic.


“Music is a big part of our culture,” said Tammy Schachter, spokeswoman of Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif., which pumps high-energy music suitable for a rave into its multimedia lobby, where visitors are invited to play games at consoles. “It’s a big part of youth culture and entertainment. That’s what we’re all about.”


While many EA employees plug into their own personal music while they work, the same is true for Yahoo! in Sunnyvale, Calif. Employees there are encouraged to listen to music, particularly since the company just launched a beta version of its music offering, Yahoo! Music, said spokeswoman Heidi Burgett. The company recently passed out expensive headsets with microphones to all employees.


“Everybody’s listening to Yahoo! music all the time,” she said. “That’s how we are — we eat our own dog food.”


Stack says plugged-in employees are especially common in offices where cubicles dominate the workspace. “Everyone’s in these cramped workspaces where it’s natural to hear the clack of keyboards and copiers going off. You’re asking for distractions all day long,” said Stack, who runs TheProductivityPro.com from Colorado.



Impact on morale



Allowing workers to plug into their own music also gives them more personal freedom and control over their work environment, which can uplift morale, according to some workplace consultants and managers.


Workers such as Marc Jensen swear by their music. Jensen and others say they’re less likely to be bothered by co-workers if they have their headphones on. The medical-device engineer will sometimes put on his iPod headphones — and won’t even bother turning on the music.


“If you don’t have an office with a door, wearing earbuds is a way to say, ‘Go away. I have work to do,’ ” said Jensen.


Jensen said he now spends 60 percent of his day listening to music because he has 5,000 selections to choose from. “I do have less interactions with colleagues — sometimes that can be good,” he said.


But the trend is disconcerting to some workplace experts. More workers plugged into their own music might mean that they will “interact less, talk less and socialize less” — and that can mean more stress in the long run, said Michael Peterson, president of the Workplace Consultants in Landenberg, Pa.


“People need support from their colleagues and managers, people they can vent to and get feedback from,” said Peterson. “If people retreat into their iPods and their little electronic gadgets all day, that will make them less connected to other people.”



What studies show



Still, scientific studies have shown links between music and increased productivity. But the type of music that’s playing may be just as important, some say. Forget rock and songs with vocals, suggested Stack and others. Classical music may be best for working. That’s the view of Advanced Brain, a firm in Ogden, Utah, that produces “cognitive training products that make the brain work better.” Music containing 50 to 60 beats a minute (the average heartbeat of an adult male at rest) is optimal for concentration and learning, based on research from an independent psycho-acoustics lab, according to Advanced Brain. The company records its own versions of classical and chamber tunes and takes out the crescendos and other excitable, “distracting” movements.


Much of the music pumping out of workers’ music players may not be ideal, said Stack, who recommends instrumental music over vocals. “You wouldn’t want to put rock music on while you’re focusing,” said Stack. “If you’re listening to the music, then you’re being distracted.”


But try telling that to Brennan, who cranks out her work sometimes while singing along to AC/DC’s “Hail Caesar,” and Korn’s “Good God.” Jensen, on the other hand, prefers Bollywood soundtracks in Hindi, as well as the sounds of electronica and country.



Corporate policies



While most organizations don’t have any policies on the use of portable music players, a few do. UPS, the express delivery company, doesn’t allow most of its workers to listen to music while they work. Nearly all of its 400,000 employees make deliveries in the field or handle packages in the warehouse, jobs that prohibit the use of personal music players because of safety issues, said spokeswoman Diana Hatcher.


Other companies allow music but not file-sharing on the company’s networks. Electronic Arts, and Jensen’s company, Proteus Biomedical, are among them. “We’ve very sensitive about copyright issues,” said Schachter of EA.


The music players can be used to bypass firewalls, download and store sensitive information and introduce viruses. Some government organizations such as Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Los Alamos National Lab have restrictions on digital music players and other electronics for security reasons.


At Lawrence Livermore, iPods and other electronic devices that can record and read data are not allowed in areas where classified work takes place. Los Alamos allows personal music players even in restricted areas, but they can’t be connected to any laboratory computer.


But Kevin Matthews, a 24-year-old San Francisco worker, can’t imagine working without music at his job for the State Bar of California. He has his own strategy: He wears one earbud in and one out. “That way, I’m still in the environment and can react to noises and cues but have music in one ear,” said Matthews.


His iPod, which belts out Frank Sinatra and hip-hop tunes as well as comedy routines, always resides in his front left pant pocket. He perhaps sums up the ethos of the next generation of workers: “The music goes wherever I go.”