Music in the Office

Posted on May 7, 2013


Donald W. Hudspeth, Esq.


            I have been asked to address the question of music in the office.[1]

We live in an age where music is readily available by cell phone or online and portable by CD.

A.    The question is: “When and under what conditions, is it appropriate to play your personal choice of music in the office. 

B.     The answer is “Not very often, if at all.”

C.     Here’s why:

A little Kant: The first reason can be found by applying Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only that maxim which you can at the same time will to be universal law.” (Yes, I know, I’ll bet you think about that all the time). Simply put the question is “What if everyone did it?” Obviously, if everyone played their own music whenever they wanted and it could be heard by others, we would have chaos – a veritable cacophony of sound making it impossible for anyone to either enjoy the music or wok. So, under Kant if it can’t be done by everyone it should not be done by anyone. This is a principle of internal guidance.

A little Mill:  The second reason is explained by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: For Mill the question is “Where does personal freedom end under a system of social rules?” His answer is: Where the conduct impacts the rights of others. Again, this philosophical principle can be stated in common language: “My rights end where yours begin.”

            In the workplace we have not only a system of rights of the individuals, but also the external communal purpose of serving the end for which the people are gathered: that is, to get work done. Under Mill’s “rules standard of conduct” music heard by others not only infringes on their right to quiet (not to have my music tastes and musical mood at the time forced upon them) but quiet for the purpose of being in the building, at work, rather than at home; that is, to get work done (the community purpose).  So, again, music, or any activity which impacts another at work, is unethical because it does not serve the rights and needs of others as individuals or the purpose of the community as a whole. Please note that social status or rank have nothing to do with this analysis.  Ethically we are all equal and subject to the same rules.    

         Technology:  The third reason is practical. We live in a world of cell phones where music, if played, can be played on earphones or at least very softly. So, under existing technology there is no reason to bother our neighbor. (Thank God the “boom box” era is over.) Next, in possible use would be the desk speakers hooked to our computers. These speakers represent more than ten year old technology, but at least they were made with individual rights and the community purpose of the office in mind. That’s why they’re small.   It is not that they could not have been made bigger.  All of us in the office have these small speakers. If we use them it is important to keep the volume under control.

Generally, when in doubt, don’t. Get up, walk outside of your work area. If you can hear the music, then it’s wrong. (It does not matter that the music is great. Someone else may not appreciate or be able to work while listening to “The Sound of Music.”

Finally, of course, would be larger speakers which probably just don’t work in the office. While they could be played while one is alone, it would almost never fail that someone else would come in to work, thus mandating the ethical action of shutting the music off or switching to a less intrusive mode of listening (e.g. cell phone). Shutting the music down just when we are getting into it could cause both frustration and resentment; so if one can’t handle shutting it off, then one should not turn it on. This applies to all means of listening in the office.

            Conclusion:  All of this is a long and complex way of saying what you already know. We live in a community. We must respect the rights of others and serve the purpose of the community while we are here. Of course, at home, we can play “The Sound of Music” as often and as loud as we want (subject to our neighbors’ rights of course.)

            Personally, I use my cell phone at half volume. If my music ever bothers you, please tell me.

            All this being said, on this and any other topic in the office, I welcome your comments. I have been known to be wrong (or not completely right) before.

            Thank you.

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[1] The same, I suppose, would apply to other things like personal conversations and cell phone use.