The Social Psychology of Music

As the authors of The Social Psychology of Music point out, although music has many functions in human life, they are all essentially social. We use music to communicate, even when from very different backgrounds and speaking different languages. Music has the ability to trigger very powerful emotions., forming the basis of shared experiences. Music always conveys meaning, but that meaning is always situated in a social and cultural context. Meaning can never be free of context.A surprising amount of research has been conducted into the psychology of music, from social, developmental, individual, sociological, anthropological, clinical and other perspectives and The Social Psychology of Music provides a great overview of this work.

The importance of social context in music is nowhere clearer than in the important role of music in almost any significant social event or life passage, from weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies to coronations and political occasions through to sports games, folk festivals and the club scene. Music is an important catalyst in regulating encounters between people, from the formality of barn dances and high society balls to the informality of nightclubs and bars.

Work on classifying the relationship between music and mood has often shown that two key dimensions stand out: pleasure and arousal (which are also two key dimensions of emotions themselves – more commonly called valence and arousal). There are general qualities associated with different types of music and different moods. Excitement is produced by music that is fast, with uneven rhythm, medium pitch, dissonant harmony, loud volume and in major keys. More tranquil reactions are associated with music that is slow in tempo, medium pitch, flowing rhythm, consonant harmony, soft volume and also in major key. Happiness is triggered by music with fast tempo, high pitch, flowing rhythm, consonant harmony, medium volume and major key. Sadness is associated with slow tempo, low pitch, firm rhythm,, dissonant harmony and minor key. And serious music is usually slow with low pitch, firm rhythm, consonant harmony, medium volume and major key.

Music has a strong effect on attention, shown in the different in-store behaviours associated with different tempos of music. Customers walk more slowly through stores and spend more when background music has a slow tempo. Different studies show different reasons for this, and that the effects of music interact with the visual environment. However, there is some evidence that different tempos effect general levels of happiness and arousal as well as our perception of time.

In recent years there has been a growth in research on music with direct applications to marketing and branding, and particularly in relation to advertising. Some studies show that music is used in between 40-50% of adverts (higher for international advertising), either to get attention, create emotional states, provide a mnemonic cue or to act as an implicit or explicit carrier of the key message.

Other research has been conducted in-store to understand the influence of much on buyer behaviour. Most obviously, the arousing ability of music can play in a role in the tempo of customer behaviours. Loud music (with high arousal) has been shown to lead to less time in store than soft music. More importantly, they spent considerably more in the slow music condition. Slow music also leads to longer meal times and more drink purchases. Interestingly, fast music has been shown to lead to more “bites per minute” in restaurants and faster drinking rates in bars.

A comparison of classical music and pop music a wine store showed that the music type did not influence the number of bottles purchased, but the average price per bottle increased when classical music was played. Liking for the music in a place leads to increased liking of the place itself, and while this may seem an obvious point, there is a broader point that such increased liking leads to a greater sense of affiliation and a greater chance of coming back.

Music also influences are perception of waiting times (playing music is much better than silence). More bizarrely, some more global effects of music have been identified including the ability to predict future economic conditions through consumer sentiment as measured by the balance of optimistic and pessimistic lyrics in contemporary popular songs.

All these different studies and many more go to prove the profound influence that music has on the human sense of the rhythm of life and more broadly on our sense of well being. If you want your brand to be in rhythm with your customers, there’s no better place to start than by picking the right soundtrack.


The Social Psychology of Music edited by Hargreaves & North

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