Using Music For Facilitation: Chet Baker vs. Chet Faker

For many of us, music is an integral part of our daily lives. Would you hop on the subway or go to the gym without your headphones? Of course, music is far more than a way to pass the time on our commute. It’s a powerful tool for stimulating our brains and getting the creative juices flowing, and that makes it great for facilitation.

Every sound you’ve ever heard falls somewhere between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. That’s the range of human hearing, encompassing thousands of distinct tones that mix and match to make up the drone of a plane flying overhead, the clicking of our keyboards, the sounds of our voices. It’s also the range of all of your favorite songs.

Music stretches all the way back to the beginning of human history (like the 40,000-year-old flutes discovered in Germany a few years ago) and is a part of every known culture on earth. Music also crosses cultural barriers—we love Gangnam Style and Japan loves Avril Lavigne (go figure). It’s a fundamentally human thing.

Why We Use Music For Facilitation

At The Design Gym, we use music all the time for facilitation. It can really help get everyone in the right headspace to tackle the problems of the day. It’s not just our anecdotal experience—it’s science. When we listen to music, it activates a ton of different areas in our brain—neural circuits linked to sensory-motor processing, memory, cognition, and emotion. It also deactivates a part of your brain associated with self-monitoring, making you feel less inhibited, constrained, and self-conscious. Essentially, listening to music brings an extra emotional jolt to your regular cognitive abilities.

In other words, music literally gets your creative juices flowing and affects you on a deeply emotional level. That makes it a great way to punctuate activities and manage the dynamic in the room, like when we need to transition from teaching to practicing. Toward the end of Bootcamp, for example, we like to pump up the jams to help get everyone through the home stretch. It’s a long day, and some upbeat music can boost the mood on the spot. (Eye of the Tiger sound familiar to anyone?)

But that’s not the only way music can be used for facilitation. In all, there are 3 different modes in which music—as a tool for facilitation—can make all the difference in the world:

Using Music To Facilitate Collaborative Activities

Music is a great facilitation tool during activity-driven collaborative sessions. You probably have go-to songs for the gym, your walk, or if you’re having a bad day. That’s because those songs affect your mood in a certain way. It works the same way for facilitation. When groups are given a specific task to attack, music can make all the difference in the world to get those creative juices flowing and that collaboration happening. It’s also a great way to keep a steady energy level and encourage productivity.

For activity and collaboration-based sessions, the tracks that will give your team the energy it needs are the ones that get our heads bopping and our toes tapping. You can use a playlist of high-energy, feel-good songs to buoy the mood in the room and get everyone jiving.

When you’re curating your playlist, be mindful of the people in the room. Not everyone is going to have the same taste in music, so make sure you mix it up, across genres and decades—curate a playlist that could stand the test of time (literally!). Chet Faker, Ratatat, and Stevie Wonder are some of our favorites.

Also, remember that you’re using music as a facilitation tool, not as a distraction. Avoid things like hair metal riffs and foul language the will draw attention to the music rather than the task at hand.

Using Music To Facilitate Reflection

Not every part of the design thinking process is a frantic buzz of activity—we need time to plan, reflect, and debrief. In the same way that a pump-up playlist can give your team a buzz of energy, a reflection playlist can help everyone get into a calm, open, thoughtful frame of mind where they can digest and process.

After one of our bootcamps, we were completely stoked to read a comment one of our participants left for us on the feedback form. She said that the music played at the end of the session opened her up and allowed her to take her brain to a different place to fully reflect on what she was learning. That’s what you’re going for—music that facilitates deep, genuine reflection. (It was Beach House in case you were wondering)

To hit this mood, your playlist should use tracks that are quieter and calmer. You might want to include instrumental pieces to give people space to really open their minds. Think jazz, classical, and chill indie music—not quite meditative, but very Zen. Some of our favorites include Chet Baker, The XX, RJD2, and Beach House.

Using Music To Facilitate Energy Sprints

Every once in awhile, you and your team are going to want to kick it into high gear. Maybe it’s the end of a long day and everyone is tired or maybe you’re about to head into a sprint, but you need a jolt—something sudden and intense to really pump everyone up.

In that case, you don’t need a playlist at all. You just need one awesome track to give everyone a serious boost of energy. Make that track your dedicated song for these moments so that everyone associates it with getting super pumped. Eye of the Tiger is the gold standard, but you and your team can choose any song that has that same take-no-prisoners zing to it. We also heard a trick that restaurants use – play the songs that were hits when your target users were in high school. Yes – Spice Girls is always a crowd pleaser.

When you put on this kind of track, crank up the volume a few notches. This song tells your team that it’s game time and you guys are playing to win.

This Is Our Mixtape For You

Chances are, you already love music. And now you know, you have a very good reason for playing it throughout the day! You can use people’s natural emotional connection to music to get everyone in the right frame of mind to really tackle a problem. So get out those headphones and speakers, crank the tunes, and let your imagination loose.

Need help getting started? We’ve got two, ready-to-go playlists on Spotify. Check out our high-energy playlist for activities and our mellow playlist to help people relax and process.

Want to learn more about the science behind how music affects your brain? Check out this post by one of our community members!


The Design Gym
[email protected]

The Design Gym is a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

  • Play-Doh, Pipe Cleaners and Post-Its: Our Favorite Supplies For Keeping Meetings Creative
    Posted at 14:24h, 22 June Reply

    […] In addition to tons of markers, we also love to have a speaker of some sort in the room to give our session a soundtrack—that helps get everyone pumped up and feeling […]

  • Toby Cannon
    Posted at 07:25h, 20 May Reply

    Hi, this is great advice and I’ve seen it work very well. Do you have any recommended app or software for the facilitator to cue the relevant piece of music at the right time and to ramp volume up or down?

      Posted at 11:19h, 11 June Reply

      Hi Toby—that’s a great question! Our go to music player in workshops and events is usually Spotify. We have a premium account so we have a bit more control over the playlist.

      But, whatever music player you use, here are some of our go-to tricks:
      – We always connect to our speaker via bluetooth. That way our phones are essentially an on-demand music control device. We can easily skip songs, hit pause and play, or turn up or down the volume.
      – Not sure if the speakers in the room have bluetooth capabilities? We always bring 2-3 of our own, just in case. The UE Booms have great sound and are pretty travel-friendly.
      – Lastly, when using your phone, make sure you turn it fully into a “music control” device. Put it on airplane mode and connect to the wifi or, if there’s no wifi, put it on Do Not Disturb to avoid those unplanned for phone calls and text messages.

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