People hum in the shower or in the car, but what about singing in your office? Just imagine the operatic exchanges you could have with your boss.
“Bob, I need that sales report by Mon-day”
“It’ll be on your desk by fi-ve” you sing back, silently wondering where in the office libretto it names you as lead vocal for sales reports.
Can’t quite picture it? Well maybe no operatic exchanges ever took place in business, but company funded music used to actually be a thing.
Nicol Valentin explains.
Whose Idea Was This Anyway?
Singing during work comes naturally to most people. From the earliest times music has been a way to keep workers movements synchronized, reduce boredom, and increase productivity. Railway workers sang to keep track laying coordinated, Scottish women sang while fulling cloth, and African slaves sang in the field. Even America’s Yankee doodle began as a Dutch harvest song. With the noise of industrialization, however, singing voices never made it past the door.
Scientific management became a mantra for businesses after its popularization by Fredrick Taylor in 1909. Every movement of a worker was accounted for under Taylor’s system, which was good for the employer, but not necessarily the employee. How to increase productivity was the question in everyone’s mind, including Frank Gilbreth’s. Productivity would improve if the workers were given a break. A little music might help, Frank told people, but the idea wasn’t taking off. It took the First World War to really get the idea going. Companies were looking for ways to get the maximum efficiency from their workers. Thrown into the mix was the Council of National Defense. Composed of mostly industry and labor leaders, the council was relied upon by President Woodrow Wilson to divide resources between the civilian and military worlds. With a vested interest in boosting productivity and limiting fatigue, rest periods, which could include singing, were coming into vogue.
It Doesn’t Take a Genius
All that scientific mumbo jumbo just to figure out what department stores had known since the 1800s. John Wannamaker, for example, had an organ placed in his Philadelphia department store in 1876. Wannamaker liked his employees to start and end the day with a little ditty or two. Filene Department store in Boston likewise opened its doors early. Employees spent the time singing and dancing down the aisles. Such a joyous start made for more pleasant and efficient sales people who kept a spring in their step throughout the day.
Of course, music was also used as a means of bringing in customers. Nevertheless, the part it played in lifting the morale of the worker was real. Besides Wannamaker’s and Filene’s, Chicago’s Marshall Field, New York’s Macy’s and pretty much every other large department store sponsored a band, chorus, or orchestra. Wanamaker was by far the most ambitious of the bunch. He purchased an organ to use for the stores morning sing alongs and had a total of ten different ensembles in order to accommodate different talents and tastes.
Now, maybe if you know what society was like 100 years ago you’re thinking: it’s nice for a bunch of women to get together and sing that fluffy, frilly stuff. But hard working, sweat producing, dirt incrusted men—never!
Well, think again, mon ami.
Men, Sweat, and Music
In January 1915, American Iron and Steel devoted its newsletter to music in the workplace. Why? Well according to the Bulletin, men were often unsatisfied. Not because of low wages—that would be silly—but because of boredom. Still, they needed some way to keep the men involved in wholesome activities after hours. Once again, music came to the rescue.
“Volumes. . . could be written on the moral and intellectual influence of good music,” according to Charles Hook, superintendent of the American Rolling Mill Company in Ohio. For that reason, the company had a minstrel chorus and a glee club among other things. Hook extolled the virtues of singing saying the camaraderie made the co-workers more like brothers, creating a positive effect on the workers’ health and happiness.
American Rolling Mill wasn’t the only one to incorporate music into the lives of their workers. Many mining companies had bands, orchestras and Glee clubs. Bethlehem steel had a pretty sweet band hall that they boasted was: “Probably the handsomest and most completely equipped building of its kind in the United States.”
Kum-ba-yahing with the Company
Music during work hours was a psychological tool to help increase production. The introduction of a musical diversion relieved the monotony of repetitive work and had an uplifting effect on a weary worker. Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut is one example. The company had been suffering from high turnover and a large number of accidents. After a two-year investigation begun in 1917 the company introduced singing periods. And yes, it did start among the women. It took time for some of the men to accept that singing wouldn’t diminish their manhood. Once they did, however, it was the grandest fifteen to twenty minutes of their day. Men would bring their instruments to practice after work for the next day’s sing along, while the singers took time to learn their parts in harmony. They liked it so much that when the management tried to replace the singing with lectures the workers listened respectfully, then asked to sing anyway.
It Ain’t Over ‘till it’s Over
“Properly selected music would stimulate any class of workers to greater action,” said the self-help author Napoleon Hill - and companies agreed. IBM, Ford Motor Company, Union Pacific, National Cash Register, Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation, Dodge Brothers; all had some type of music program for their employees. Many even expanded the programs to include musical education for family members. The golden age of company supported music didn’t last though. With Wanamaker’s death in 1922, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, people were singing less. Schools began to take on the role of musical education more, helping to make family programs redundant. Money too became an issue. With the economic problems of the Great Depression, money was often shifted from employee programs to national advertising.
Company orchestras and singing groups enjoyed periodical revivals, especially during the period of the Second World War. Using public address systems, many companies could now pipe music into their workers, giving them a little lift with relative ease. Things may have waned, but what was old has the habit of becoming new again. Some companies are once again realizing the benefits of office music rooms and company choirs. So, while your ability to sing falsetto may not be discussed at your next job interview, a little practice can’t hurt.
Share your knowledge of singing at work – whether from history or personal, modern experiences – below…
Singing at work: Italian Immigrants and Music in the Epoch of WWI Fernando Fasce for Italian Americana Vol 27, No.2 (Summer 2009)
Sing, Play, Dance! Music and Music Education in Industry by Tuohey, Therese Volk, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2021
Rest Periods for Industrial Workers, Research report #19, January 1919, National Industrial Conference Board
Commerce and Poetry Hand in Hand: Music in American Department Stores, Linda L. Tyler Journal of the American Musicological Society Vol. 45 #1 Spring, 1992
Monthly Bulletin of the American Iron and Steel Institute, Vol. III 1915, New York
Beckett, W., & Fairley, L. (1944). Music in Industry: A Bibliography. Notes, 1(4), 14-20.