Music is a universal human activity. Every known human culture produces it, and even the most un-musical among us can be found snapping our fingers, tapping our feet or trying to whistle a tune.
Since music is so closely linked to the human experience, it makes sense that music has a powerful effect on human behavior. But just what effects does it have — and can we harness those effects to alter mood, thought or behavior?
Here’s a look at the science behind music and its effects on what we feel, think, say, and do.
Music and Mood
The interrelationship between music and mood has been well-documented for decades.
In a 1957 edition of Theory, Leonard B. Meyer published Emotion and Meaning in Music, in which he argued that emotions arise “when a tendency to respond is arrested or inhibited.”
From this basis, Meyer argued that music produces emotion in part because it can be structured to arrest or inhibit responses. The strategic use of dissonance, rests, holds, and changes in dynamics or tempo lead the listener through a series of delayed, denied or gratified aural moments that in turn produce emotions.
This push-pull response also lies behind one of the biggest anecdotes in the music world: The claim that the Mozart family would torment one another by playing unresolved chord series or unfinished scales on the clavichord, just to watch another family member rush to the instrument to resolve it. The need for resolution is an instinct we all feel.
The ability to perceive certain emotions in music appears to be cross-cultural, as well. In a 2009 study published in Current Biology, researchers played Western music for listeners in the Mafa community of Africa. Mafa listeners and Western listeners agreed on which parts of the Western music sounded “happy,” “sad” or “fearful.”
Why does music play so powerfully on our moods, regardless of our cultural background? One answer can be found in neuroscience. Barry Goldstein at Conscious Lifestyle writes about studies that have linked the release of mood-altering neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine to various musical forms or structures.
When we’re exposed to a piece of music for the first time, our snap reaction is based on two sets of factors, Curtin University professor Adrian J. North tells the Huffington Post: pleasant vs. unpleasant, and active vs. sleepy.
If we perceive the music as pleasant, we’re likely to rate it “exciting” or “calming,” depending on how active or sleepy it is. If we find it “unpleasant,” we’re also likely to find it “unsettling” or “boring.”
The riot accompanying the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a highlight of Western music history. Although the reasons for the riot are complex, says Ivan Hewitt, “What is certain is that the audience was shocked — and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be.”
Rhythmically complex, dissonant and demanding unprecedented range from several instruments, The Rite of Spring likely struck audiences as active, but highly unpleasant. In other words, unsettling.
An initially unpleasant reaction can change over time, however, as we develop familiarity with the piece and a personal association with it. And we can measure the change. Nina Kraus and researchers at Northwestern University have found that the brain can translate musical sound waves directly into neurological brain waves — and that these waves can change over time as we become more familiar with a musical piece.
Music can have a significant impact on what and how we feel, and we know it. As a 2014 paper in Frontiers in Psychology noted, “to regulate arousal and mood” was the No. 1 reason given by respondents (there were 834 of them) when asked why they listened to music.
For companies and marketers seeking to influence behavior, however, feelings are only the first step. Can music also prompt customers to action?
Music and Customer Responses
Some individuals report using music not only to change mood, but to fuel action. In an article for Psychology Today, world-class endurance athlete Christopher Bergland speaks about this very effect: “During my training and races it became obvious that even in really horrible weather conditions, or when I was physically suffering, that I could use music (and my imagination) to create a parallel universe that had little to do with reality.”
The result was a personal playlist of songs Bergland knows put him in specific moods, which he uses at specific times to boost different types of performance.
Influencing Behavior Through Association
Our behavior can be influenced by music others provide for us, as well. One study, cited by the Association for Psychological Science, divided participants up among four rooms. One room piped in background music from the Beach Boys, one played Chinese band The Peking Brothers, one played Indian musician Sunidhi Chauhan, and the fourth was silent.
After a while, people in each of the four rooms were given a menu with American, Chinese and Indian food options, then asked both what they wanted to eat and how many items they remembered from the menu.
Not only did people listening to American, Chinese, or Indian music order the corresponding cuisine, but they were more likely to remember those words on the menu than they were the others.
In a second study, the researchers linked “upmarket” music with product offerings to see whether customers associated more “expensive”-sounding music with a willingness to pay more for a product. Sure enough, they did — as long as they thought the product was upscale, too.
“Music incongruent with product image can lead to a reduction in the maximum prices consumers are prepared to pay,” the researchers said. A 1993 study on the purchases of wine shop customers found similar results: The shoppers spent more while listening to classical music than they did while hearing Top 40 hits.
Tempo and Mode: How Fast Do You Want Customers to Move?
In the 1980s, two studies indicated that customer behavior can be influenced by music at very specific levels, notes University of Miami music therapist Kimberly Sena Moore, Ph.D. In one study, customers were found to walk faster when exposed to fast-tempo music, which meant they spent less time browsing and making impulse purchases. In the other, restaurant diners were found to linger more over their food when it was accompanied by slow-tempo music.
A 2012 study in Marketing Letters went one step further, comparing fast- and slow-tempo songs in either a major or a minor key. The researchers found that while shoppers still bought more at a slower tempo, they bought the most at a slow tempo in a minor (often described as a “dark” or “sad”) key.
Not only can customers’ actual speeds be affected by music, but their perceptions of their own speed can, as well. In a 2000 article in the Journal of Business Research, shoppers were exposed to either well-known music or obscure music. Those who heard the top tunes spent 8 percent less time shopping. Researchers surmised that the time spent “keying in” to music they already knew caused those shoppers to believe time was passing more slowly than it was, which hastened their movements.
Different Music for Different Customers: Does Gender Matter?
A 1993 study published in Psychology and Marketing examined how male and female participants responded, respectively, to songs in which volume or tempo were changed while holding the pitch constant. The female participants reported more positive associations with the softer songs, while the male participants reported more positive associations with the louder ones. Neither group varied much over the changed tempo, however.
Sixteen years later, in 2009, a study in The International Review of Retail, Distribution, and Customer Research looked at both male and female customer behavior in a florist’s shop when romantic music, happy pop music or no music were piped in. The researchers found that while the different tracks didn’t seem to affect the two groups differently, both men and women bought more when romantic ballads were on the speaker.
Subtle Sound: Using Music Subliminally
One vital note for companies: Most participants in these studies, when asked whether they were consciously listening along with the background music, said “No,” according to an article in Psychology World.
Music, in other words, may provide a powerful opportunity to influence behavior without customers even realizing it. As younger generations become ever more marketing-savvy, music remains one way that companies and marketers can stay subtle.