Lab music: Finding the balance between motivation and manslaughter

Research can be inspired by rock music but not always

Should music be allowed in the lab? This quandary has plagued researchers for eons. Humans are renowned for disagreements and music tastes are a great example of how something so simple can end in tears – or worse – if not handled with finesse.

On one hand the upbeat tempo can make mundane tasks infinitely more enjoyable. On the other hand there is the gratingly repetitive commercial radio station playing the same songs every day accompanied by the inane chatter of popular DJs that make even the simplest calculation a chore. Can there be a balance?

Firstly we have to agree to disagree. Musical taste is very personal and rarely changed simply by subjecting someone with sufficient quantities of your favourite songs.* The widespread use of headphones in the lab mitigates the need for musical compromise but it does raise safety concerns. Particularly with the few times that I’ve taken my IPod into the lab.

My particular brand of dancing could be incredibly dangerous in a lab environment that has lots of glassware and hazardous substances. I thought I was able to get away with this dark secret. Yet one Sunday, when busting some pretty awesome moves waiting for the centrifuge to finish, I looked up and realised that I wasn’t the only one working on a weekend. I just hope the footage ever made it to YouTube.

And dance music simply does not help lab with lab tasks. Try as I might, there is no way of accurately weighing out 10 mg of sample to a beat. But I digress.

Secondly we have to admit that if we’re listening to our favourite music on the radio for a whole day, chances are we are the only ones enjoying it. There are exceptions, of course, and who doesn’t love 70s rock or 80s power ballads? Ok, probably a lot of people, but that just highlights how weird some people are.

Everything from death metal to some soppy love songs that are currently flogged to death by radio stations, basically we just need to mix it up. Some days of silence, some days of commercial radio stations and some days of personal IPods. But definitely no dance music. Unless it’s a lab clean-up day or a mutually-agreed-to afternoon of filling tip boxes.

When it comes to playing music in the lab, what we really need is some tolerance, patience, acceptance, and, if all else fails, headphones.


*Surprising, I know. But I can provide reproducible results from my own experiments if required.