Anchor Songs: How Music Builds Team Memories

Each of us has certain songs that, when you hear them, instantly bring back a particular memory in profound ways, as if transporting you back in time. Even if you heard that same song dozens of times before that key memory, that’s the moment it will forever be associated with for you. When I hear Bon Jovi’s Bed of Roses, for example, I’m instantly transported to the night of August 31st, 1995, when a group of fellow Brits and I arrived for a year of work in Canada; in an attempt to get to know each other on our first night there we went to a local bar, which happened to be hosting a karaoke night. None of us had sung kararoke before, but that night we sang Bed of Roses as a group, and it became “our song” forevermore; almost 30 years later, when any of us hear that song, we think of each other and that first night abroad. This is an example of an “Anchor song.” There are countless more examples of anchor songs that call to mind moments from my childhood, or moments with my own children, or other teams I’ve worked with.* I am sure the same is true for you. I wonder, what are those songs for you, and what memories do they bring to mind?

Dr. Anne Fabiny wrote in Harvard Health Publishing in 2015: “Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward. Two recent studies—one in the United States and the other in Japan—found that music doesn’t just help us retrieve stored memories, it also helps us lay down new ones.” Indeed, anyone who’s lived in New England over the last 20 years can’t hear The Standells’ Dirty Water without imagining a Boston Red Sox victory, whether they want to or not; nor can they hear Sweet Caroline without hearing 35,000 people in Fenway Park adding “ba, ba, baa” and “so good, so good, so good” in the chorus. In fact, sports teams are experts at recognizing the connection between songs and particular memories, hence the often-played rally song, used by the team, their management, or the fans themselves, to kickstart a game, boost energy, or remind the team that they have won before and they can do it again. Many teams I’ve worked with use music thoughtfully to build particular connections in the brain: to create a clean start or end for a program’s session, or to signal that you’re crossing the threshold into a new space with a particular mood. Two particularly effective ones I’ve seen: using baroque music for quiet stretches of work, and using upbeat instrumental hip-hop/funk as background during team discussions.

If you don’t have any songs that are particularly meaningful to your team at work, that’s not a surprise – it’s easy to think of music in the workplace as too playful or silly (an idea we’ll return to at a later date). The most powerful connections are likely to be spontaneous unplanned ones, but nonetheless, it’s possible to use music in a way that makes a difference for your team and build positive memories.

This Week’s Tip:

Think consciously about the place music holds in your workplace and with your team. Consider how you might use music to build connections and positive memories:

  • If you host meetings, consider using a song to open (and possibly close) each meeting as people come in. Using the same song can build an anchor and get everyone into a particular state of mind, but change it every month or so to keep it fresh (see below). Alternatively, elicit suggestions or ask a different team member to provide a song to open/close each meeting; doing so allows them to express something about their personal tastes and invites authenticity.
  • If your team has an anchor song, be thoughtful about when/where you use it. Using an anchor song every day can create a wide number of new memories, diluting the original positive association. Use it sparingly for most effectiveness.
  • Be on the lookout for other places music can have a place in your team. This might be background music for team discussions, music that is meaningful to someone played during their leaving party, or something else entirely.
  • Be open to spontaneity. You might not sing karaoke together as a group, but there may be other ways a piece of music becomes an anchor for your group. If you don’t notice it immediately (you probably will), you will hear others in the group bring it up over time; at that point, it’s an anchor.

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

You can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

* Jon Acuff uses this concept of the soundtracks of our lives transporting us back to memories of success (or failure) in his book Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking, which we will come back to in a future article.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s