Why we shouldn’t (but do) play music at conference socials

by Adrian Segar

Can't hear you!Even though socials aren’t the best ways to meet new people at conferences, strong cultural pressure makes socials mandatory for most events. And if you want to make socials a maximally effective opportunity for interaction and engagement keep them music free.

Why? Well, you’d be horrified if loud construction noise invaded the ballroom at the beginning of your elegant pre-dinner mixer. Any kind of competing sound makes it harder for people to hear each other, reducing the quantity and quality of interaction. Yet plenty of meeting planners seem to believe that music acts as a kind of obligatory social lubricant when people get together. Jackhammers are not OK, but “background” music is, somehow, mysteriously exempt.

Why is music often inflicted on us during socials? While I don’t know for sure, here are a couple of misconceptions that may be to blame.

 — Music can improve creativity and enjoyment, so doesn’t it improve social situations?
Research indicates that the right kind of music can improve creativity when working and improve efficiency when performing repetitive tasks. For example, I find that listening to certain music helps me write, and improves my mood while stacking wood. So, some might conclude that playing music at socials could benefit the quality of interaction and engagement.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that social interaction is improved when music is introduced. Research findings of creativity improvements are confined to solo work. In addition, research suggests that positive effects of music depend on familiarity—i.e. music heard for the first time is not helpful—so it’s not possible to play one piece of music to a crowd of people and obtain uniformly positive results. Finally, music with lyrics is especially distracting to people trying to converse, and should be avoided.

 — Bars and restaurants play music while we drink and eat, so shouldn’t we have music during our event socials too?
Have you ever been to a bar where there wasn’t music playing or a TV on? Me neither. In my experience, the majority of restaurants play background music. Bars and restaurants are in business for people to meet socially, so surely they must have found that playing music improves customers’ social experience, or they wouldn’t do it!

Well, actually, no. Bars and restaurants play music, not for their patrons’ benefit but for their own! Background music that’s loud enough to make it challenging to talk to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment has been shown to increase sales. From a 2008 French study“high level [sound] volume led to increase alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass”. And 2008 British research concludes that “people do, at least partly, drink because they can’t talk to each other”. So the reason we’re surrounded by music in commercial social spaces is not to increase social interaction, it’s to decrease it and have consumers buy more!

We also need to bear in mind people—typically older folks like me—who have hearing loss that impedes their comprehension of conversations. Anything we can do to provide a better acoustical environment at our events will help the auditory challenged to have a better experience.

When is it OK to play music at events?
Are there times when it’s appropriate to use music during conferences? Sure. Here are some examples, feel free to add more in the comments:

  • Sessions where music is used as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
  • Parties! (But be sure to provide alternative quiet spaces for folks who don’t like the loud music and/or just want to talk.)
  • Corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities, especially if they involve repetitive activities—e.g. packing toys for needy kids.

In conclusion, avoid reflexively ordering music background for your events. It’s a fundamental distraction that, apart from a few specific situations, reduces communication, connection, and engagement. And, according to the above research, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, your food and beverage bill may be reduced a little too!

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