Can playing music at work build a sense of shared experience, fluidity of thought, comfort, or camaraderie? What makes music good to jam to? Are certain types of music better for different types of work? We thought about all of this and more when we set out to create music in FigJam; tune in for a deep cut on our inspiration and process.
There's a phenomenon called entrainment, where if you're surrounded by fast-paced sound, you tend to move faster, and do things faster. You can get more stressed, or more focused, too. When it comes to work—and, more specifically, remote, collaborative work—this phenomenon can be a pretty effective strategy to get people on the same page and harness that ineffable collective flow.
Music can also have the opposite effect. The wrong song can, quite literally, kill the vibe, or even worse, become a blocker. So how do you play music in a space where a lot of different people come together to do different types of work? It turns out there’s a pretty rich compositional lineage to draw on for this sort of thing (more on that below), which extends beyond Spotify and lo-fi YouTube playlists (though those are pretty handy, too). Thinking about music as a tool for making presented unique challenges, both for our product team, and for Sounds Like These, the music studio we enlisted to help us build out our sound portfolio for FigJam.
The concept of music in FigJam drew on two points of inspiration. The first is the simple tradition of playing music to jam to at work. This, of course, used to happen IRL, but teams both inside and outside of Figma began doing this pretty regularly to work together remotely.
The second is to support timed sequences in work sessions, which are traditionally supported by a silent timer that queues an alarm. “You have this very vibrant, active FigJam doc—everybody's talking, sharing ideas, and then you have the heads-down period where everything goes quiet,” says Chris Brainerd, who led the engineering effort on the music feature. “I thought: Wouldn't it be great if there was a little something in the background to keep the momentum going?”
For Maker Week, Figma’s biannual tradition of taking a company-wide break from day-to-day work to make stuff, Brainerd built a music step sequencer that was integrated and interactive, but that also doubled as a sonic replacement for the silent (and, let’s be honest, sometimes dread-inducing) timer. After prototyping a proof of concept, he decided that while his demo was fun to build, and fun to play with, it wasn’t solving for the very real need to fill those awkward collaborative silences with something more meaningful.
“Music is a very personal and emotional thing, right? If somebody comes into a room full of 20 people and says, ‘Great news, we licensed Taylor Swift and we're gonna put her in FigJam!’ some people would be very excited. But in a diverse group of people, some people are really not going to be happy,” says Brainerd. “So that was one of the big challenges: How do we walk the line between being inoffensive but also being not bad? Because often those are opposite sides of the same coin.”
Licensing costs and “Swifties” aside, the problem became even more complex when you start to weave in all the creative tensions inherent in the sound brief: music that’s inclusive but not bad; attention-grabbing but not distracting; diverse but related. Developing a range of styles that can accompany the varied and often unpredictable cadence of a design process is hard, especially when the form it takes looks different for every team. “Trying to grab attention is normally our brief,” explains composer Sam Heath, a partner at Sounds Like These. “This was almost like the opposite. You don't want to grab people's attention away from what they're doing. You want to support their thought process or, you know, just lay a nice soft area out for everybody to kind of sit around and do their work—an audio area."
“Functional background,” “Furniture,” or “Elevator” music—whatever you want to call it—the idea is creating a background sound that is present and intentional, but not distracting. The genre has been around since the early 20th century; the first instance is often attributed to French composer Erik Satie, whose “musique d’ameublement” (or “furnishing music”) consisted of five short pieces composed in three separate sets—imagined accompaniments to a host of wonderfully random scenarios. Satie’s contrapunto aesthetics gained renewed interest in the 1960s; the minimalist composer John Cage famously performed Satie’s Vexations—840 times, as dictated in the score by the composer, in a performance that lasted 18 hours and 40 minutes. “The unperformable directions on Satie’s scores—'open your head,' 'be invisible for a moment'—mark them out as a precursor to conceptual art.”
Squarely on the opposite spectrum of conceptual art and musical composition is Muzak, the corporate purveyor of ubiquitous, anodyne background music. Muzak was conceived during World War I by Major General George O. Squier, the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer. Squier found a way to transmit signals across electrical wires without the use of radio frequency. In 1934, he founded his company, Wired Radio Inc. and renamed it “Muzak” as a nod to another industry game changer, “Kodak.” Muzak's popularity really took off during the manufacturing boom of World War II—their pitch was providing a sonic solution to motivate workers. In the 1940s, Muzak introduced the Stimulus Progression: 15-minute stretches of background instrumentals designed to give the listener a boost of energy (and productivity) over the course of an hour. As a company slogan once described it: “Muzak fills the deadly silences.”
Today’s work environment looks pretty different than it did in the 1940s, but the need to fill “deadly silences” with feeling and action is still very much in play. It’s just the day-to-day variation and nuance that’s changed. Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, widely regarded as the first ambient album ever recorded, was composed in a sort of opposition to the Muzak-brand of productivity music. In the album’s liner notes, Eno explains:
“Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to `brighten' the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
For music in FigJam, the team found themselves taking cues from both schools of thought. They edged into Eno’s camp on the idea of making something “ignorable” but “interesting,” as well as in the ability to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.” Where they ended up was somewhere in between ambient and instructional—not in the assembly-line-productivity spirit of Muzak's progression, but in pairing music with desired emotions and modes of work.
“As much as we wanted the music to be good, we also didn’t want it to be the star of the show,” says Brainerd. “We defined [the tracks] more as moods than genres for the most part, although they kind of mapped to genres.” For the sound studio, this meant that our team basically entrusted Sounds Like These to build off vibes. “Basically, they gave us a table of different energies or work modes,” explains Heath. “It was up to us to just go away and find references.”
From a product perspective, not only did we want to give people the confidence to play music at work, we wanted to make sure that the experience didn’t get stale for frequent users. So, we relied on longer mixes—called “donuts”—instead of single tracks.
What makes a “donut” a donut?
There are four donuts total (with more tracks to be released soon), and each has a categorical energy or vibe designed to specifically support different types of activities. Musically speaking, they are meant to sit somewhere between the background and foreground. “We were writing so the tracks had enough space in them,” explains Heath. “We wanted to avoid big, sudden crescendo moments, and we’d want the track to develop, so you feel like you're going on a journey, but specifically one that doesn’t take you too high too suddenly, because that's going to just distract somebody's attention.” The studio also tried to avoid clustering sounds—both in the mix and musically—so that you're not trying to do the guitar at exactly the same time as a massive drum. The goal is to enhance, not overwhelm.
Because let’s be honest, a lot can happen in a day—endless context switching, back-to-back meetings, different people (and vibes), feelings and projects—it’s a lot for our brains to process! With music, we’re trying to give people a cue to simply be present and keep pace with the task or moment at hand. So you may move from a very calm, reflective retro exercise listening to “Lo-fi beats” in one meeting, but then, in the same day, you might be responding to seven different DMs at the same time, or addressing seven comments rapid-fire in a FigJam file to a track like “Button Smash.” It’s a very different mood. It should be high energy, and that's not a bad thing.
The important piece is how it makes you feel, and if that’s anxious, that’s ok, too. “Like, if you've ever been in a situation where somebody's playing very calm music while you were trying to do something very frantic—it's horrible!” says Brainerd. “You should feel supported in feeling anxious, too!” We hope that these jams give you a little more space to connect, think, meet, create, and be true to yourself while you’re at it.
Try out music in FigJam at your next jam session. Here are a few of our favorite pairings to get you started: