The workshops, the facilitator, music and the reminiscence bump…

Tash Willcocks
7 min readDec 15, 2021
Like a bat out of hell lettered on black shape

We all love music…

OK wait there, that’s the first assumption, along with my total belief people love my Taylor Swift shake it off dance (I mean, they do… & in my head I am wearing a tutu) But we don’t all love music…

Not everyone loves music, not everyone needs or wants it while working and not everyone who does love music has the same taste.

In research from Office Furniture Online “Whilst over half (54%) of workers enjoy listening to music when working, 61% of offices don’t play music out loud for staff to enjoy, despite workers expressing it helps to fill the silence (42%) and increases productivity (35%).However, a third of workers (32%) claimed that the choice of music in the office has caused arguments between staff, and one in ten people (11%) dislike the music that is played in their office….

Now I suspect you’re thinking 2 things, One what does furniture know about music? Well let’s park that for today, two what has this got to do with music in workshops? Ok lets focus on that.

The 3 moments that motivated me to write this…

I have had three experiences in the last week that really made me think about the way I use music (or don’t) in my facilitation.

The Miro music plugin is taking over, I have been to several sessions where we are sent to ideate or dot vote and out blasts the Miro Melodies “Set your timer during group activities to keep everyone on track and play background music to get people in the right mindset.” they say…. But in reality I have found myself completely distracted, and quickly disconnecting because of the invasive rhuma taking over my headphones. Yes I could mute, but that means I cannot hear the facilitator if they add instructions or give count downs etc. I thought it was just me until a peer actually unmuted recently and asked for it to be turned off, this caused a ripple effect of people admitting they hated the music and preferred silence. We were sold a dream that’s causing a concentration nightmare for many.

I was watching a workshop that was talking about facilitation & using music in new ways, they played a tune, it was a bit glitchy made me feel odd, then I could not actually hear them properly, I had a wave of odd anxiety and I left the session.

Finally I was at Spin Class (cycling, but not) and one session I was full on loving, felt amazing, singing along, endorphins in full flow, the next session was still great, but I was not buzzing as much, they played an Adele track, I went meh, the person opposite me beamed and I saw that feeling pump through her like it had me. I realised the music the day before had been a collection from the 80s, it ticked all my youth love boxes, whereas the opposite cyclist was within the Adele era in her teens. I ran out of spin to research my hypothesis.

Running off to research — reminiscence bumps

I found some amazing research by Prof Catherine Loveday, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster among others. What the other spinner and I were experiencing was a psychological phenomenon called the reminiscence bump. The reminiscence bump happens for lots of things not just music — it could be our ace books, fave films, celebrity crushes, and music, but “evidence suggests music features most highly because musical memories are stored in a ‘safe’ area of the brain which is more resilient and protected against age related conditions.” indeed Prof Loevday states “There is evidence that structural elements of music get physically tied to our autobiographical memories” she continues. “The musical reminiscence bump is so powerful because we attach music to particularly emotional times.”

When our teen & twenty something brains are processing lots of new exciting stuff this attachment to music is more powerful than while autopiloting through boring experiences. We start creating a bank of self-defining memories — that first kiss, time driving solo, travelling as Matt Griffiths CEO of Youth Music puts it “Music provides the soundtrack to our lives.”, which funds music-making projects for 0–25 year olds, explained.

“It stirs powerful emotions and feelings, recalling vivid memories.” And that’s the thing the surge of activity in my brain, triggered by Salt n Peppas “lets talk about sex baby” increased the levels of oxytocin and dopamine in my brain, bringing me the joy vibes, while my opposite cyclist remained unmoved till adele triggered hers.

Talking to the twitterverse and other lovely humans…

The above led me to having a lot of conversations and twitter interactions on this subject. Because I have hit the point where I am thinking…. Why do we so tightly control the music online, yes in a physical space we need to listen to one source, but online… well, we don’t?.

So why are many of us still operating in the same way, while WFH has allowed us to swerve the office tunes and tap into our own, the workshop music still reigns.

I am not suggesting binning music altogether and a healthy twitter thread reinforced this…. Jared Fossey UX Lead of SwedBank said it “Depends on the workshop, the intended outcome, the desired headspace, and the audience,” Aimee Tasker echos this notion with “For smaller more experimental teams whatever seems most appropriate for the session, but that tends to be an intuitive decision, not a strategic one beforehand” Adam St John Lawrence, Co Author of This is Service Design Doing, made an excellent point “music is incredibly effective for getting attention, time boxing, establishing mood and for prompting mindsets which we can recall later with the same tune.” I love the idea of using music to prompt mindsets to recall later and it echoes the research of Professor loveday, thinking of delightful memories Kyle Soo felt the silence in his Lego Serious Play workshops, but did appreciate the Lego ASMR, which brings us back to memories.

Not all music brings back great memories, Bat Out of Hell with Meatloaf my lift my mood, upset others triggered by theme tuned break ups or create the Adele “Meh Moment” if it’s not in your culture, era or taste….

Slight (but important) sojourn

A lot of you will be designers, or creatives reading this or have come from that background, now imagine someone started using your work, unpaid and uncredited? … doesn’t feel good does it? Adam St John Lawrence makes a salient point I want to share “If I am working in a location which has a license to play music, I use my Spotify lists (tagged #Tisdd) . If not — well, just using other people‘s music is not cool. I work in performing arts; my musician colleagues deserve payment for their work.” he finishes “music publishers occasionally make examples of people who pinch tunes, with very expensive results.” So think before you press play…

Activation theory, your brain on music…

“Activation theory” has shown music increases workflow in factories where people are in repetitive jobs (I agree I have been there) Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, writes that “music can make repetitive tasks more enjoyable, and make it easier to concentrate while you’re doing them”. But with more complicated tasks its… well more complicated! Our brains are in essence multitasking as neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin explains learning or ideating etc requires your brain to analyze, remember instructions, ideas, facts or work with new ways of thinking. When music is introduced, your brain “ has to process auditory data on top of processing the instructions and facts. Because of this multitasking, the brain can interpret the instructions and facts improperly, either associating them in odd ways, or making mistakes about what’s important enough to store”. So for many, throwing on Mogwai, (which lyriclessness is fave) during ideation can actually hinder their thinking rather than help.

Get to the point Tash…

SO GET TO THE POINT TASH!!!! I hear you scream….
OK so why not hand over sections of the music online to the participants? Ideation, dot voting, anything that’s not monotonous.

I like the silence, they can chose to stay in that quiet space with you, or turn on their own music, because remember, they can be on mute and have a rave raging in the room and you & the other participants will not be interrupted, they can still hear you and the instructions, the flow can keep going…

Ah - but they may play death metal when you want them chilled? OK yes, thats their choice, death metal may chill that individual out, but Jane Webb Qualitative Researcher from Snook has the answer, create a playlist with suggestions, as above you need lyricless tunes for reflection and ideation, some show stoppers to energise and well Il Matilda Lawrence Jubb Founder of Split Banana and Design Consultant Mar Murube as they had the play lists of dreams when I asked!

OK-but isn’t that pressure in the workshop on the participants?
Well, yes but they take it if they want it, we send out playlist with the pre reads etc, mention to have it ready, plus Ruth Renfrew content designer at Snook bounced the idea of turning it into a warm up activity early doors, win win…

Thats it!…

So lets take Bjorks advice and SHHH SHHH SHHHH, let the participant chose while you remain silent…

And thats it — that was a lot of words for a simple idea… but I would love your thoughts…. oh and I don’t dislike Adele before I get hate mail, Shes just not Salt n Pepper…

Articles mentioned

What Listening to Music at Work Does to Your Brain (It’s Pretty Amazing)

Music in factories: A twentieth-century technique for control of the productive self

Does music help us work better? It depends

Why music from our teens stays with us forever

This Is Your Brain on Music



Tash Willcocks

Head of Learning Design at Snook, Honorary Fellow & Academic Board member Hyper Island, Letter Lover & Typostrator — Insta & Twitter @tashwillcocks