THE BLOG
02/06/2008 04:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whistle While You Work

Through our limited work experiences, my friends and I have all been occasional victims to the menial labor at the bottom of the totem pole. It's hard to go from managing your own schedule and writing papers of your own analytical thoughts to coordinating meetings for others and not really having a say, one way or the other. While the thrill of being young and on your own in the Big City can temporarily push back the tide of unhappiness, the office can get to us all, and we could all use some help from time to time, to take our minds off the chores of the day.

One obvious way to keep energy and spirits from sinking lower than the Patriots Super Bowl after party (18-1! 18-1!) is music. With offices nationwide shedding the more severe appearances of formality, listening to music at one's desk has become an accepted way to alleviate stress. And while it may be a given that listening to pop songs will enliven any day where the bulk of time is spent in front of a humming business class Dell Optiplex, I am nothing if not unyielding in pursuit of contentment, and my search, as well the experiences of coworkers and peers, has brought forth a variety of options for rocking out mid-day.

Of course youtube is a great place to start. Not only in breadth of options, but also for specific requests. The possibilities are astounding. If you're in the mood to hear, say, Stevie Winwood's "Higher Love," you can watch the original music video from 1986, a clip from something called the 1988 "Roll with it" tour, and even a puppet lip-synching for Stevie. Of course, this is also the dangerous element YouTube carries with it: the potential for full hours of the day being sucked into an amateur video playpen. You start off looking for a Bruce Springsteen song and 30 minutes later you're watching highlights of the 1994 Rangers playoffs, captivated by a 30-second audio-less clip of Stephane Matteau scoring on Martin Brodeur. A search for Dire Straights leads to watching "Brothers in Arms" play over the last six minutes of The West Wing season 2. Finally you rise from your stupor, it's 4:15, there are 20 unread e-mails and the message light is blinking on your phone.

When looking for a long-distance music companion, the website falls short. Not only does it require constant attention to keep the hits coming (by selecting another video), the amateur nature consistently falls short. While some people may like to watch three teenage girls from Minnesota choreograph a dance to some wildly inappropriate hip-hop song, I'd prefer to put on the real thing, and, hate to say it, get back to work. Quality control is also lacking; I once found a video that promised David Byrne and the Arcade Fire playing "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)", only to discover a grainy hand held job that sounded like someone calling from inside a loud bar. Of course I then spent 20 minutes looking for a better version with no luck.

Recently I've been giving a dedicated look to Pandora. No one should have to be sold on the concept; it is Internet radio that selects songs based on your preferences, using something called The Music Genome Project to match favorite artists or songs with new material through musical "genes"; song structure, instruments used, vocal stylings, etc. The pros of Pandora are numerous; find out about new artists in an environment conducive to conservative experimentation, variety, and the pleasant surprise of when they play one of your favorites. To have a website pick exactly the right song, based on a song title you typed in earlier, is to have your faith in the unrelenting progress of mankind reaffirmed. The delirious boredom of work shrinks when faced with the blinding beauty of technology and art marching in stride towards the future. Finally, somebody "gets" you. "Yes!" you think, "what a great recommendation! How daring to recommend 2Pac on a Notorious B.I.G station, but you're right! The Gangsta roots, use of melodic hooks, and boastful raps fit perfectly!"

But, as my friend Andreas constantly reminds me, Love and Hate are two sides of the same coin. While the general sentiment is that the website's most annoying feature is that it won't play the specific song you request (for an immediate craving YouTube is still tops in my book), that doesn't bother me nearly as much as their more off-the-mark picks. When not nailing your musical sensibilities perfectly, Pandora is great at shaming you. I've never doubted my taste in music as much as I have in the past two weeks. I've told Pandora in confidence of my favorite musical acts, songs, and genres. In kind, it has mercilessly mocked me with puzzling selections. Since when did liking "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison mean that I would also enjoy the entire catalogues of Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot? Based on some of my stations, I missed my true calling to follow the Grateful Dead on tour by a few decades, even though in reality I find even "Casey Jones" hard to listen to. One night my roommate and I had a passionate agreement that "Nightswimming" by R.E.M was probably the best song we'd ever heard. The next morning I created a station based on that exact sentiment. Pandora proceeded to assault me with piano-lite tunes whose mellow rock instrumentation, mild rhythmic syncopation, and acoustic sonority really meant I was a wussy 9th grade girl who found the O.C. soundtrack too "alternative."

The unpredictability, charming in small doses, can be exasperating when looking for something to ebb the workday blues. That's why some friends I know stick with only old favorites, harboring iPods under their desks or using CDs (although one must be careful with repeating the same songs over again, particularly in a cubicle. I had a friend who, on his first day of work, realized the guy in the cubicle next to him listened to ten O.A.R. songs on loop. A week later the 10 songs hadn't changed and my friend could have sung, "That was a crazy game of poker" in his sleep.). One approach that I find intriguing is to listen only to action movie scores. One buddy likes to cue up the Crimson Tide soundtrack for big Excel projects. Even chart-making takes on a higher purpose when Hans Zimmer' "Roll Tide," is reminding you of the potential breakdown in nuclear launch operations. I tried this tactic briefly, and I must say that "The Kiss" from Last of the Mohicans did get me through a few tough weeks there.

One more watch-out for the workplace: avoid sad songs. This may seem obvious, but it's harder than it sounds, since most of the great ones are in one way or the other depressing. Avoid any song where two dead-end losers try for one last night of happiness, where troubles are forgotten until sunrise, where glory days are rehashed or summer nights remembered. The last thing you need at work is a further reminder that life's not as great as it once was.