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The Ultimate Psychology of Music Blog - How Background Music Can Boost Sales

Relevant topics Archive, Strategy

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Background / instore music can affect consumer behavior in various ways. If you know the effects (both direct and indirect), you can use background music to your advantage and increase sales.
  • Application:
    Base your playlist on the characteristics of the environment and the characteristics of your customers to get the most positive results. Direct effects include: tempo, volume and familiarity. Indirect effects: genre, color and language.
  • Just some quick fun facts. Companies spend millions of dollars to discover the perfect amount of fizz in a soda. Eating chips with headphones on makes the experience less enjoyable. And the louder the sound of a shutting car door is, the safer a consumer feels - which is why car manufacturers see this as a feature instead of a bug. 

    What do these phenomena have in common? They highlight the importance that sound has in consumer perception. But did you know that something as subtle as the sound of background music can affect your purchase decisions drastically?

    Today we will talk about how background music affects consumer behavior. Because even when you are not consciously listening to the music being played, it can still affect your buying decisions. And not just a bit, but quite dramatically! 

    Let’s look at some of the most interesting insights on how you can put music to work for you as a company.

    It takes two (ways)

    Generally speaking, there are two ways in which music affects consumer behaviour. Firstly, music can directly affect behaviour through, among other things,its tempo and volume. Secondly, music can also indirectly affect behaviour by activating specific associations in the brain. We will discuss both ways.

    Direct Effects

    The Tempo

    Did you ever notice that your sports performance improved when listening to uptempo songs? You're not alone. The tempo of music is one of the most important ways in which music can affect behaviour, as it literally affects the speed at which we are doing things. For example, slow background music was found to decrease walking pace, leading customers to spend longer times in a store. And as a result of this, people tend to buy more (Milliman, 1982). Not just a bit more actually; Milliman’s study found that whereas the average dollar amount spent by shoppers in the fast-paced music condition was around $12, the dollar amount spent in the slow-paced music condition was around $17. An increase of almost $5 or 40% per customer. Can you imagine the boost in revenue by the end of the year!?


    Of course, this effect of music tempo is not only applicable to stores. In restaurants, for example, researchers found that slow music positively affects the money spent by customers too (Caldwell & Hibbert, 1999). While the tempo of music did not seem to increase the amount spent on food, it quite dramatically affected the amount spent on drinks (Milliman, 1986). Slow background music encouraged customers to drink on average 3.04 drinks more per table, leading to an increase of 40% in spending on drinks. This was due to the fact that people in the slow music environment tended to finish their dinner more slowly; while people in the slow-paced music treatment took 56 minutes to complete their dinner, customers in the fast-paced music treatment took only 45 minutes. 


    You might now conclude that using slow background music is the best option at all times. However, this really depends on the characteristics of the environment. For example, in a restaurant where the objective is to maximize the number of seats turned, speeding up customers with fast background music is likely to ultimately lead to higher revenue. The same is true for shops with a high visitor density, since this can cause people to purchase less when a shop feels too crowded. Speeding up the process causes customers to spend a little less time in the store, but it does lead to more transactions, which is again likely to increase total sales. 


    FYI: music below 72 BPM is considered as slow music in these studies, whereas music speed above 94 BPM is considered as fast music. To put that into perspective: “Heaven” from Bryan Adams runs at 72 BPM, and “Thrift Shop” from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at 95 BPM.  

    The Volume

    Tempo isn’t the only factor that can make a difference between a potential customer and a happy client. 


    The volume of background music also affects consumer behaviour. After reading the paragraphs above, it might sound logical that often low volume is preferred over high volume background music. And this is true indeed. Let me tell you why. Customers like to talk or read through product information, and loud music often distracts them from doing that, leading them to buy less and exit the shop sooner. 


    In order to understand how high volume music can impair a person’s ability to concentrate and read the product information, we have to go back to cognitive resource theory. This theory posits that we as humans have a certain cognitive capacity, which can be used for carrying out various tasks. As such, we don’t have limitless cognitive resources and we have to divide the resources we have amongst the tasks that we simultaneously perform. Loud background music was found to decrease cognitive performance by occupying cognitive resources. This way, customers find it harder to concentrate and comprehend the information that is provided by products, and may have more difficulties with processing more complex information or visuals. This is in line with the findings of Klein, Melnyk and Vöckner (2021), who found that the presence of music shifts the optimal level of visual complexity towards relatively simple visuals. Loud background music is therefore likely to increase consumer preference for relatively simple visuals such as visually simpler product packaging. 


    You’re driving down the road and suddenly one of your favorite songs comes on. You start to sing along and immediately you are in a better mood. 


    Not surprisingly, familiarity with the music and liking of the music can positively affect patronage; it can make customers stay longer and thereby increase sales. On the other hand, it can also distract customers by again increasing cognitive load, resulting in less cognitive capacity to process more complex information. 


    Thus, for most stores, using familiar music is likely to be effective in increasing sales. However, in environments in which purchase decisions are a bit more cognitively demanding, such as phone shops or other shops that sell high-involvement products, playing familiar music might be less beneficial. In these circumstances, a good suggestion would be to go for instrumental music because it has the advantage that the buyer does not concentrate on the lyrics and focuses on products instead (Roggendorf, 2018). 


    If you want to use familiarity to your advantage, you have to make sure to know your customers in order to select the right music for them. Whereas the Bee Gees may work in a clothing store for women around their 50s, playing them in the Primark might not get you the wanted results. This all has to do with familiarity. 

    Indirect effects

    As mentioned earlier, music also has indirect effects on consumer behaviour. To understand this, we first need to dive a little bit deeper in how our memory works. In fact, our memory is constituted of a large associative network; a network of information that is interconnected. Put simply, everything we have stored in memory is one giant net of associations on which we rely when making decisions.   


    When a particular piece of information gets activated by a particular cue, it increases the chance that the pieces of information that are associated with that particular piece of information get activated. For example, thinking of chocolate might want to activate associations of romance, or gift giving. 


    In consumer behaviour, probably the most basic association that most people (unconsciously) have, is the price-quality association. When the price of a product is higher, most people will unconsciously infer that the product is of higher quality as well. There exist many, many associations in our brains, and we will now focus on a few associations people have with music and how this affects consumer behaviour.

    The genre

    A company that had a good understanding of the effects the genre of their background music can have on customers is Victoria’s Secret. In their stores, they deliberately play classical music, to activate associations of elegance and class. Generally speaking, classical music is a good fit for brands and companies that want to activate associations of high quality and prestige (Baker & Grewal). But, as a consequence, the products of these brands are also expected to be more expensive. 


    In a flower store, it is love songs or romantic tunes that increase sales, as tested by Jacob et al. (2008). They tested three scenarios: one with no music, one with pop music and one with romantic music. Guess what? In the no music and pop-music condition, people spent around 25 to 27 dollars. In the romantic music condition, people spent 32.50 dollars. Quite a spectacular increase, isn’t it? 


    So, romantic music activates associations with romance such as flowers and giving, which increases the amount of money you spend in the flower store. A fashion store, on the other hand, is better off with playing music from the charts because it creates the association that the clothes are also on trend. 


    Did you know that the genre of music can even affect taste perception of customers? Classical music, for example, does not only increase preference for sweet food, but also makes things taste sweeter. In an experiment, De Luca and Campo (2008) found that Chardonnay wine tasted more delicate and sweeter if accompanied by classical music. On the other hand, when drinking Merlot, participants thought the wine contained less alcohol when high-volume pop music was played. So, some advice from us: if you’re wanting to cut on the sweets, don’t play Ludovici Einaudi, but go for The Beatles instead.


    So what should you take home from these findings as a marketer?  Well, when creating a playlist, you want to consider the product category you are in and the associations you want to link to your brand. And in the case of wine shops and restaurants, you might even consider how music genres can alter the taste perception.  

    The color

    The ‘color of music’ may sound a little bit silly. In the end, music is an auditory sense while color is a visual sense. However, in our brains, music is often associated with visual cues. If we ask you in what environment Ed Sheeran is likely to perform versus Marilyn Manson, we would probably agree upon the fact that while Ed Sheeran is more likely to perform in a light, open environment, Marilyn Manson would better suit a dark basement kind of environment. This has everything to do with our unconscious associations. Our brains like it when these associations are congruent. Even so much that they drive our purchase decisions. In an experiment, a supermarket manipulated both the color of the backdrop of the banana shelf (dark versus light) and the type of music (high in treble versus high in bass). You might be surprised by what they found! When the background of the shelf was congruent with the background music (dark and high in bass, or light and high in treble), banana sales increased. So, it is important to match the style of the background music with the design of the retail environment. 

    The language

    Even the language of background music can affect consumer behaviour. For example, as North (1999) found, when a supermarket played German background music, German wines outsold French wines, whereas when French background music came out of the speakers, French wines sold way better. A survey showed that customers were unaware of these effects of music on their product choice. Similar findings were obtained in an online environment by Damen, van Hest & Wernaart (2021) which conducted an experiment with an online shop and background music. Again, when German background music was played, German wines were outselling French wines, while when French music was played, the sales of French wines went up. They also found that customers with well-defined wine preferences are influenced less by music. Music with strong national associations activates related knowledge and will be linked with consumers buying wine from that country.

    Key Take-Home Points 

    To conclude, background music can affect consumer behaviour in various ways. If you want to use background music to your advantage, you first have to identify the characteristics of the environment and of your customers. Let’s take a look at the key take-home points of this blog:


    • Slow paced background music slows down the actions of consumers. When customers stay longer, they tend to buy more. On the other hand, fast paced background music speeds up the actions of consumers. This can be beneficial in environments with a high visitor density or where the goal is to maximize the number of seats turned (in some restaurants, for example)
    • Loud background music can distract customers from reading product information. Moreover, the presence of background music shifts preference to relatively simple visuals instead of more complex ones. Loud music may therefore shift preferences to products with visually simple packaging. 
    • Familiarity with the background music has a positive impact on patronage. However, in an environment in which the purchase decisions are cognitively demanding (for example in environments where more expensive products are sold), familiarity with the background music might again distract customers. 
    • When deciding on which genre of background music to play, think about the associations customers have with a genre. For example, classical music is associated with prestige, high quality and high prices, while romantic music is associated with gift giving and romance. By activating particular associations through background music, you can increase sales. 
    • Matching the background music with the visual design of an environment increases sales. Playing music that is high in bass can increase sales of dark shelves, whereas playing music that is high in treble increase sales of products on light shelves. This has to do with the congruence between music and visuals. 
    • Even the language of background music can affect sales. Music with strong national associations activates related knowledge and will be linked with consumers buying wine from that country. 
  • The Ultimate Psychology of  Music Blog  - How Background Music Can Boost Sales
  • Reference:

    Milliman, R. E. (1982). Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers. Journal of marketing, 46(3), 86-91.


    Further Reading

    • The future of music - and advertising: How brain activity seizes the hit-potential of new music.

      The future of music - and advertising: How brain activity seizes the hit-potential of new music.

      Would you have recognized the hit-potential of Dua Lipa before it was cool? Or Drake? 

      Most probably, you won’t. As you know, there’s a lot of money going round in the music industry. But the question remains how much is invested efficiently, as this can only be addressed when the song is a few weeks in the air. But what if we would have the power to predict what song will be in the charts for weeks, which everyone will be humming and thus which song is the blockbuster of the month and the cash cow of the record label?

      Recent research by Unravel Research has done exactly this. But first, let’s explain the theory behind the story. 

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