What happens when the music stops?

What happens when the music stops?

By Fiona Jack

Having spent some time recently doing ethnographic interviews with consumers about high-end music systems, I started thinking about the major role that sound – and music in particular, plays in our lives, and how it may affect our perceptions of brands.

Music and Mood

Many of the people we spoke to claim that they ‘can’t manage without their music’, and that it forms a key background to many activities – work, household chores, relaxing and entertaining amongst others. They play music to match their mood – or more often than not, to change their mood. They frequently have music on in the background to ‘fill the space.’ I’m just listening to ‘100 pieces of Classical music for your brain’ on Spotify as I write this. I wanted to stimulate my creative thought processes, and shift my focus from the numbers and accounts I’ve been reviewing just now – a sort of right brain – left brain transition. I’ll probably choose a different genre to listen to this evening when I’m getting ready to go out.

It’s clear that we’re increasingly eclectic in our music choices thanks to the democratisation of music brought about by the streaming revolution, and this is both an opportunity and a risk for brand owners. Glib assumptions about the kind of music certain targets like to listen to can be dangerous. We’ve interviewed ‘generation Z’ consumers who listen to classical music when studying and empty nesters who relax to Arctic Monkeys – not perhaps what one would expect.

Music affects us in different ways, and taps into the dialogue between two powerful sides of our nature: instinct and intelligence – System 1 and System 2 types of thinking, which are different but related. Picture a jazz musician improvising – effectively composing spontaneously ‘in the moment’ to communicate emotions or respond to what other musicians are playing – and compare that with a carefully crafted musical score painstakingly written and re-written by a classical composer.

The effects of music permeate our whole being. At a physiological level, music can affect our breathing, heart-rate and brain waves – sounds can either be soothing and relaxing, or put us on edge. Contrast the sound of lapping ocean waves or birdsong with the score to a John Carpenter movie, for example, or a classical piece playing in an operating theatre to engender both focus and calm.

At a psychological level, music can have an impact on our state of mind, making us feel happy or sad – or even change our mood and how we feel. Hence we’ll choose to listen to something upbeat and lively whilst
doing a repetitive or dull task in the home, to detract from the tedium. According to a recent study conducted by the Universities of Kent and Limerick, it was found paradoxically that when people are feeling down, listening to ‘beautiful but sad’ music can enhance their mood and in fact boost their emotional wellbeing.

Listening to music

There are of course many variables which can affect people’s response to music, but the three main factors appear to be: the listener, the music per se and the listening situation. For each listener, hearing a familiar piece of music will trigger a unique set of memories and associations which are entirely personal to that individual. The same piece of music will have a different effect if played in a football stadium or a museum, for example, and feelings such as sadness and beauty can also be evoked by a particular situation or by the presence of other people.

At a cognitive level, as humans we have quite a small amount of bandwidth for auditory input. It’s quite difficult to listen actively to two things at once, and anyone who has worked in an open plan office will bear witness to this. There are some data which suggest that productivity is much reduced in an open plan set-up compared to working in a quiet place (ideally with some brain music in the background)! We are so used to accidental and sometimes unpleasant sounds around us – think of pneumatic drill of the office refit next door – but we have the capacity to filter some of these at a sub-conscious level. We tend to move away from unattractive sounds and towards ones we like – which could be why music affects us even when we are not paying attention to it, or we are doing other things.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for marketers, music can have an impact on our behaviour. Much has been written about the supposed ‘Mozart effect’. Rauscher et al reported that listening to ten minutes of Mozart’s music increased the abstract reasoning ability of college students, as measured by IQ scores, by 8 or 9 points compared with listening to relaxation instructions or silence respectively. The validity of this hypothesis has so far not been definitively proven. It seems likely, however, that music can affect what we do – particularly at the intuitive, System 1 level of thinking. Music in a retail context can either drive customers away from your store or counter, or put them in the right mood to browse and purchase.

Music as a communication tool

Music is the most powerful sound there is – we quickly and easily recognise a familiar piece of music from the first few bars. That piece of music also may have strong associations for us, linked to memories and feelings, which make it a critical brand tool, or not, as the case may be.

Many brands use music in communication, whether as a soundtrack to an ad or in a retail environment, and it’s clear just how essential it is to get the music right. Music is a universal language which transcends borders and cultural barriers – and therefore especially important for global advertising. I am still surprised how little attention is paid to music in advertising research – it’s so often tacked on as ‘an extra’ long after the new campaign has been agreed, rather than as an integral part of communication. It can be really subjective too – as well as difficult to research – because it operates on System 1.

We still don’t know why we react in certain ways to different combinations of notes, lyrics and rhythm, and neuroscientists are only beginning to scratch the surface of what’s going on in our brains when we listen to music. Until we understand a little more, the golden rule should be: keep it congruent and appropriate; make sure your music is aligned with your brand values and your visual communication; and that it really adds value; and lastly, wherever possible, include an evaluation of the impact of the music you’re using. As Nietzsche famously wrote, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake’.

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