Can music in shops make us buy more?

Can music influence our behaviour?
21 August 2018

Interview with 

Professor Ian Cross, Cambridge University


It goes without saying that music is big business - whether it’s buying concert tickets or streaming music from the internet. But to what extent can music itself be good for business? What’s the science behind what shops put through their speakers, and how music is used in ads? Ian Cross directs the Centre for Music and Science at Cambridge University, and he spoke to Georgia Mills...

Ian - There are some potential reasons why music should have an effect. It can, as we heard earlier, affect our emotions, our mood. When it affects our mood affects our executive functioning - cognitive capacities. So music can change the way we behave. The extent to which those effects are direct, unambiguous, and predictable are, well, questionable.

Georgia - So if I’m in the shop and I hear a song I really like I might get really happy and this might make me more likely to buy, I don’t know, a treat for myself - buy some mangos or something? But it might be a song I like and several other people don’t.

Ian - Exactly!  If it’s as it were, the hit of the summer, whatever that is, it might be relatively novel and then quite a lot of people might feel as you do. They feel a little more exuberant and they more likely to open their wallet. On the other hand, if it’s towards the end of the summer you’ve heard it 3 thousand times, every shop’s playing it - you just leave.

Georgia - Has anyone done the study where they’ve got two very similar shops and one of them plays all the music it can, and the other one is just ghostly silent?

Ian - No. There’s probably a good reason for that. There may be a number of reasons: one is if music does make a difference in terms of increasing the amount people spend then you don’t want to be the shop that doesn’t have the music.

Georgia - No-one dares to test it out in case they lose all their money?

Ian - Just to go back to the possibility of having a shop empty of music; one of the things that music does is it kind of provides a masking function like in restaurants. There's always music there; why is that? It just makes it seem a little warmer; busier.

Georgia - What about adverts on the TV - something like that? They often have colourful tunes alongside the product, so is there anything we know about how that works?

Ian - There have been quite a few attempts to explore this. There have been even more attempts to look at the relationship between music and film or music and image. Adn what that’s shown is if you have a degree of congruence, the music fits the image, then you remember both as an integrated whole. It’s more complexly encoded in memory, and in the probably dispersed over a wider range of brain area so it’s remembered better. If the music and the image are not congruent then you might remember one or the other, but not both. The won’t, as it were, ‘gel’ in quite the same way. So that’s one possible basis for why one might use music in ads.

The other is that if you have what you might call a ‘hook’ of some sort and possibly attach some words to it that particularise that ‘hook’ around a particular product. Then that might just lodge in the brain like a sort of ear worm and come back when you’re bored or not thinking about anything, or you’re in what neuroscientists call ‘the default mode network’ where nothing really is going on then this thing is likely to pop into existence - annoyingly often.

Georgia - So if I want people to listen to the Naked Scientists all the time I should just get a really ‘hooky’ song like: listen to the Naked Scientists…

Ian- You’re going to have to work on your ‘ident.’ Absolutely!

Georgia - I mean in all these cases, do we have any idea why music is pulling the strings on our emotions in our brain?

Ian - There was an excellent study done in about - I think it was 2000 where they got people to bring music with them and to listen in a PET scanner, music that they knew gave them chills - you know, the tingle up the spine. As a control, they used the music that other people had brought along which was very unlikely to give you the ame chills as it gave the other people. What they found was that music that gave them chills the bits of the brain if I were highly active were those concerned with reward - reward centres. In effect, music can do the same things to the brain as cocaine or sex. It can make you feel really good, really motivated to engage with it, but it’s got to be music that you know does that and not all music does.

Georgia - What you’re saying is we’re all so individual that it makes it very hard to say this one exact song will make you spend more. So what can we do to defend ourselves against music might be pulling the strings? What can we do about that?

Ian - In a shopping context, in a real world situation, we need to actively attend to our auditory environment. And when we do that we’re then in a position to make informed choices because we can ask questions like; why is that music in this place? What are they trying to do to me?


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