Does holiday muzak mess with your mind?

U.K. sound expert Trevor Cox has considered whether background instrumentals played in department stores has a psychological effect on us. Apparently … it does.

In an absolutely charming holiday article in December 2010’s New Scientist, sound expert Trevor Cox considers whether repetitive background instrumentals – often played in department stores – has a psychological effect on us. Apparently, the answer is … it does.

Time to shop. (Image Credit: Gwen on Flickr)

Before Dr. Cox delves into the science, he talks a little bit about the circumstantial evidence. That is, it appears that easy-listening music may be used to cause teens to, well, go away.

The use in the U.K. and Australia of easy-listening music to disperse teenagers – unkindly dubbed the “Manilow method” – is backed by some circumstantial evidence that it does work. In 2007, the Co-op supermarket chain in the U.K. experimented with playing classical music outside 105 of its stores, and reported a 70 per cent drop in petty crime.

Obviously, retailers don’t want actual shoppers to go away. So does background music affect adult shoppers differently than teens?

According to Dr. Cox, no scientist has specifically explored the impact of holiday background music on adult shoppers, but he adds that studies definitely show that music (of any variety) can have an impact on consumer behavior. He refers to a study conducted in 1982 that is apparently a classic in the world of acoustic science: Ronald Milliman of Western Kentucky University showed that “supermarket shoppers stayed longer and spent 38 per cent more money when slow background music was on than when faster tunes were playing.”

EarthSky 22 for December 24, 2010: The best in science and music

Since that time, follow-up studies have shown that, in restaurants, for example, the rate at which people eat can be highly influenced by ambient music. Dr. Cox adds that musical genre can be as suggestive as tempo. He refers to a 1998 consumer study which showed that people’s purchase of supermarket wines could be swayed by the nationality (French, German) of the music playing. But the coolest part of his article comes when he refers to a 2009 study showing a strong link between our perception of flavor (sweet, sour, or bitter) and certain pitches.

Sometimes subconscious associations seem to appeal to a near-synaesthetic sense in all of us. In 2009, for example, Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence of the University of Oxford investigated the mental connections we make between different tastes and sounds of varying pitch. Sweet and sour tastes consistently bring high-pitched notes to our minds, whereas bitter tastes tend to be associated with low-pitched brass and woodwind sounds (Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, vol 72, p 1994). On the strength of that research, the U.K. division of Starbucks commissioned a special piece of ambient, low-pitched coffee-drinking music to put its customers in a receptive mood.

But where does this leave us in terms of understanding effect on us of repetitive background music during holiday shopping? Dr. Cox, after assessing the evidence, concludes that background music does help keep shoppers in the shopping mood.

Finally, he turns to a colleague, Bill Davies of the University of Salford (U.K.) who studies soundscapes. Dr. Davies says that hearing evolved as a warning system, so we’re attuned to any sudden noise – one that could alert us to danger. Davies adds, “While the brain has a powerful ability to get used to constant noise, music has so much information in it that it is harder to habituate to.”

All of this seems to suggest that repetitive background music might aid the ultimate experience, especially during a busy holiday time. And that’s because, in a lot of people, it may stimulate shopping while, at the same time, preventing cognitive overload … if it doesn’t drive everyone crazy, first.

Beth Lebwohl