Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” begins to play as the StriveTogether Leadership Program seminar concludes. Several participants chuckle as they pack their materials to head home, having discovered that the music over the previous two days was themed given the activity or time of day.
For decades, researchers have studied how music affects people’s productivity, mood and brain function as well as student learning. They ask questions such as how learning to play a musical instrument impacts academic achievement or if incorporating songs can help students learn and retain new concepts. My mom, who was a kindergarten teacher in Ohio for 40 years, put that research into practice and catalogued educational songs by subjects and skills, creating a musical curriculum for students’ early learning and development.
Over the past few years, I have experimented with the role songs can play in supporting adults who are working to improve student outcomes. I offer no neuroscience or randomized control trials, but rather some anecdotal evidence that an intentionally constructed playlist can be an integral component of “creating a container to achieve results.”
What is a ‘container’?
The “container” as it is defined in Results Count™ is the “infrastructure that supports results-based leaders as they meet to achieve the results they have designated.”
Most meeting participants will think of the container as the physical meeting space — and that’s a big part of it. There is a lot of intentionality behind everything from table configuration to what is posted on the walls. For example, I often know that the container has the right data or posters in the room when participants look over at and gesture toward the walls during a conversation or — even better — when they stand up and bring the data back to their tables while they are working.
But the container goes beyond just the meeting room and the meeting times. It is designed to ensure that participants have the preparation, structure, support and resources to get their work done, not only during the meeting but before and after as well.
The question is: Does including music in the container support leaders in achieving results?
The role music plays in the container: Tests 1 and 2
My exploration of how music can enhance participants’ experience and engagement started at an internal budget meeting. Spreadsheets may encourage your average meeting attendee to subtly reach for their smartphones to check their email, so as the budget committee began to peruse the graphs and charts, I turned on a carefully curated “Money Team Playlist” as background.
The familiar opening cash register chimes of Pink Floyd’s “Money” flooded the room and participants cocked their heads. The mood energized as Lunchmoney Lewis sang about the “Bills” he’s gotta pay, and participants hummed along to “If I Were a Rich Man” with the Fiddler on the Roof cast. Most importantly, not only did we achieve the meeting results, I had an enthusiastic list of volunteers for the next budget committee who heard how fun the meeting was or who were intrigued by what songs would be included in the Money Team Playlist 2.0.
My next mixtape was in April at the StriveTogether Leadership Program launch in Charlotte, North Carolina. The participants were given time to reflect on their life experiences and how those experiences influenced their understanding and assumptions about race, class and culture. By increasing one’s own awareness of underlying assumptions, this journey mapping exercise is intended to enable leaders and practitioners to have authentic conversations about what factors impact the disparity gaps in their community and to develop strategies that better address inequities.
As the participants gathered markers and started drawing key life events from birth to present day, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” plays softly from the speaker in the corner of the meeting room. It wasn’t until the second song — One Direction’s “Story of My Life” — that participants realized the songs on this Journey Mapping playlist were themed to the activity. They enthusiastically bobbed their heads to “Born this Way” while mapping their journeys and sharing them with others in the room.
Since these first two trials, an integral part of annotating the agenda is considering what music will help set the container. Could you have these meetings or do these activities without music or with a random Pandora playlist? Absolutely. But I have found that the right music can impact the mood and energy of a room of participants, translating to a greater fervor and enthusiasm for the task at hand — and ideally to achieving the group’s results.
In 2020, as meetings have moved online, I’ve found music to be just as, if not even more, important in virtual settings. Playing music reduces awkwardness and sets a playful tone as attendees join the Zoom room or when they participate in thinking and journaling activities during the session. Recently, during StriveTogether’s virtual Cradle to Career Network Convening, music curated for the theme of the conference or of the day generated excitement as participants joined plenaries and workshops, leading to animated commentary in the chat box and, in some cases, dance parties amongst session facilitators and attendees. Jam to the full convening playlist here.
How to create your own meeting mixtape
Want to incorporate tunes in your next meeting? Follow these five steps:
- Identify potential times to incorporate music (e.g., as participants are joining the meeting or going on a break or as background during data walks, specific activities or work time).
- Pick a theme. Consider the purpose and topic of the meeting or event.
- Be both literal and abstract. Some topics (such as money) will have songs that talk explicitly about the subject. Others, like continuous improvement, require a bit more creativity. (Consider songs like “I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers for improvement.) Search on Spotify and Google for key words. An end-of-day playlist, for example, could include both “going home” songs but also tunes about travel/cars/planes or goodbyes. A few of my favorite work playlists are linked below.
- Mix it up. Draw songs from a variety of genres and decades. Ones that are recognizable often work best. “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” albums can be a good place to start.
- Take requests. Any good DJ has their ear tuned to what the audience wants and likes.