The Psychology of Background Music - What's It There For?

May 25, 2023 6:45:00 AM / by Smarter Systems



Background music is everywhere. From the frozen vegetables aisle of your favorite grocery store to the seating areas of restaurants, businesses nowadays always occupy their guests with music turned up just enough to provide a sense of environment. But is there any reasons deeper to providing ease? The short answer is – yep!  But there's so much more to it than that.

The (Brief) History of Background Music

The idea of background music, or music that is designed to not be listened to consciously, first appeared in the early 1900s in the form of live musicians that accompanied silent films in cinemas. However, as media technology improved, the founding of the company Muzak in 1934 took this idea to a much different level in commercial spaces.

MUZAK! | Music album art, Worst album covers, Album covers

Muzak was a company that specialized in creating original music meant to be functional (but not attention grabbing) in its environment.  Programs were specifically designed and sent out to businesses to provide not only specific moods for their environment, but stimulate customers and help provide a comfortable shopping experience.  It notably even got the name "elevator music" since it was used to help calm one's nerves on a long elevator ride.

However, this style of background music eventually died out by the beginning of the 21st century.  As FM radio and eventually streaming services like Pandora and Spotify became more widespread and easier to adopt, more modernized businesses took to playing specifically curated playlists.

So How Does it Work?

The effects of background music can be explained via the elaboration likelihood model.  In this model, it is argued that there are two main modes of persuasion - the central route and the peripheral route.  The central route is more direct persuasion, such as argumentation and conversation that engage critical thinking.  However, the peripheral route is much more subliminal.  By comparing a conditioned stimulus (such as your product) with an unconditioned stimulus (such as background music), feelings towards a specific product can be influenced.  Simply put, background music enhances the likeability of a certain product or brand simply by just being there.

Imagine a scenario of you walking into a store for the first time.  The store is small, beautifully laid out, and has a lot of products that might interest you.  But instead of a soundtrack lightly playing throughout the store, it's completely silent.  You hear only the air vents and occasional noises the cashier makes.  Wouldn't that feel.....awkward?

This is why background music in retail stores is absolutely essential - they have the potential to make shoppers more comfortable.  And by varying the type of music played and the tempo, it allows businesses to easily shift how customers feel and act in response to their environment.  For instance, a 1995 study found that more arousing music made consumers more likely to affiliate with salespeople.  A chart of this can be seen over to the right.

There are two more factors to background music that make it effective.  The level of volume is essential to how a consumer interacts with their environment.  If the music is too quiet, it will reproduce the same situation mentioned above.  If it's too loud, they feel overloaded and leave.  But sound emissions at the right, subliminal volume allow a retail or service environment to prosper accordingly.

Also keep in mind that the music you choose should also match the customer base you're marketing your business to.  Especially with the widespread creative and technological development in music, some people can be more affiliated with businesses if their playlist matches their tastes.  But also keep in mind this effect can work the opposite way as well.

This phenomenon extends to multiple sound sources however.  Sound masking is a perfect example, and we've written an entire article about it here if you're interested.  Sound masking fundamentally works the same way - it's a specific sound (comparable to white noise) played at a low volume in commercial office spaces designed to influence people's actions.  But here, the sound is played to "mask" nearby noises that might potentially distract an employee from being productive, such as sibilance from human voices.

Need Background Music in Your Store?

Smarter Systems can do the job for you!  If you've just hopped onto this page, we're an audio-video integrator based in Charlotte, North Carolina that does installs locally and nationwide.  We've done tons of sound system installs, from hidden ceiling systems to full monitor systems for sports arenas, auditoriums, and theatres.

Check out some of our audio case studies here!

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Topics: Audio Visual, Sound Masking

Smarter Systems

Written by Smarter Systems