Manipulation through background music

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

32 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. “Background music”, “manipulation” and how it works
2.1. A definition of background music
2.2. A definition of “manipulation”

3. What are “Muzak” or “DMX” supposed to sell?
3.1. How emotions influence acting through music
3.2. How publicity works compared to background music

4. How does background music have an effect on human beings?
4.1. Emotions as a process
4.2. How can music influence our emotions?

5. From influence to control by using background music- musical studies on the influences of music on test subjects
5.1. How background music has an effect on relaxation
5.2. Classical music on public places
5.3. Background music in restaurants and supermarkets
5.4. How loudness has an effect on the residence time of customers in supermarkets
5.5. How tempi have an effect on residence time of customers in supermarkets
5.6. The effect of background music in order to increase learning capacity
5.7. Background music and its socio-emotional effects in society
5.8. Background music in movies
5.9. Background music in publicity
5.10. Background music at work
5.11. Background music in the car

6. A few Counter-arguments against the studies above

7. The “Mozart-Effect”

8. Physical impacts of music and how we can overcome of being influenced
8.1. Brainwork and music
8.2. Latest findings about brain and music

9. Conclusion
9.1. How to overcome being influenced
9.2. How can this article help researchers, musicians and non-musicians of not being manipulated?

10. Illustrations, figures, tables

11. References

11. Planungstabelle

12. Begleitbrief


The article deals with the different kinds of manipulation of background music on the human being. Several studies are discussed about the consequences of background music on decision making, driving, buying, eating at a restaurant, etc. The question about the possibilities of an escape from the influence of music is asked and discussed. At first the functions and mechanisms of background music are elaborated, before the effects on the human being are discussed. Subsequently tests are presented about the various influences of background music in order to achieve control of people. Furthermore the controversies about the famous Mozart- Effect are taken into consideration. It is also interesting to know how background music has an impact on the physical body. To explain this phenomenon the working mechanisms of the brain are illuminated by including the latest findings about brain and music in the last months. This article ends with some concrete suggestions how to overcome being influenced and manipulated by background music.

1. Introduction

Since centuries music is accepted in most countries as an essential form of communication.

Herbert Bruhn sees music as a replacement for communication (Bruhn, p.33). In what sense is “music as communication” a manipulation of society? How does this form of communication work? What are the biological mechanisms in every human being when music is consumed? Brown and Volgsten (2006) are aware of the efficacy of influencing the behaviour of individuals and whole groups. When and where are we influenced by background music? What can we do to counteract of being influenced by background music?

Horst-Peter Hesse is aware of the fact that all psychological processes are dependent on social norms, personal and past experiences in that the human being is born into. Hesse says that there is not one specific piece of music or style that represents the perfect fit for everyone because each individual thinks and experiences differently. According to a series of tests he found out that music in general does not have the same meaning for everyone. He further proved that the same piece of music has different affects on different people. Therefore Hesse looks at the biological and chemical processes in the human body when the respective person perceives music. This experiment has been done in different cultures. Hesse says that the anatomy and the physiological structure and functions of the nervous system are the only variables that are constant within our bodies (Hesse, p. 8).

This article tries to find out in what ways and whether it is at all possible to manipulate the human being by utilizing music and how we can overcome this form of manipulation. This will be done by looking at several musical tests that have been done in the past to influence the human being. On the other side I will look at the physical effects music has on the human mind. At the end I will propose a solution to find a way to overcome this form of manipulation.

2. “Background music”, “manipulation” and how it works

2.1. A definition of background music

Jörg Klußmann defines the term “background music” as music that is heard in the background of a setting. The listener does not focus completely on the music. Background music includes as well live-music in a restaurant as music that is heard while washing the dishes, driving or learning. The hearing of background music is often seen as a spare-time work (Klußmann, p. 31). Background music is usually designed to ameliorate the atmosphere of a specific location.

Heiner Gembris explains that it is possible to use background music to facilitate or release stress, anger, fear or pain. He says that the researcher Hanswer showed in an experiment with pregnant women that background music helps to release their pain. Instead of permanently focussing on their pain and fear, they are distracted by the music. The result is that the women perceive the birth as being less painful (Gembris, p. 31). The music is supposed to create a familiar atmosphere which leads to a relaxing and secure feeling.

2.2. A definition of “ manipulation ”

Brown and Volgsten define “manipulation” as a concept that implies a relation of power which is supposed to “manage (a person, situation, etc.) to one’s advantage, esp. unfairly or unscrupulously” (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1995, in Brown 2006). Brown and Volgsten add that “there is an obvious ethical aspect to this sense of the word: manipulation involves undue and unjust coercion, a power relation in which the stronger party manipulates the weaker.” Concerning music, they say that it “is supposed to influence our feelings, our state of mind, our actions, without our having to think about or analyze what is happening to us” (Brown, p. 168).

The researchers define the term “manipulation” as an expression aimed at influencing a person to act or react in a certain desired manner. In our days music is used for “propagating group ideologies and identities”. A proof for the latter is that music is accepted as an important tool of marketing strategies in society. In their book “Music and Manipulation” Brown and Volgsten discuss the social uses and controlling mechanisms of music. Davidson says that the making of music is a social aspect that is very important. When “singing a lullaby, a work song, a hunting song, or a school song; [at a] Hindu wedding”, etc. the individual identifies himself often with the performer (Davidson, in Clarke, p. 57).

Brown and Volgsten have developed a general “social-communication model” (Fig. 1) for music that is as well interdisciplinary as cross-cultural. In order to explain and argue that model, Brown and Volgsten invite several authors and researchers to present their perspective on the role of music in society and “how music both influences and is influenced by the society that uses it” (Brown & Volgsten, p. 2).

Brown and Volgsten are of the opinion that the functions of music represent the driving force “for the uses and controlling mechanisms of music.” The final result of the social- communication model is that behavior-controlling comes from the functional uses and social communication of music. The model describes three phases that all lead to the final behavioral control. What Brown and Volgsten call the “organizational side of musical communication” represents the different functions of music such as society, politics, economy and industry. In the second phase the listening to the message of the music. The listener interprets a musical meaning from the message given in phase 1. The third phase refers to the impact of phase 1 and 2 which can be beliefs, attitudes or ideologies (Brown & Volgsten, p. 7-8). When phase 3 has been reached, behavioral control through music has taken place.

3. What are “Muzak” or “DMX” supposed to sell?

“Muzak”, “DMX” or other “mood media groups” are companies that produce and sell music which is supposed to enhance the ambiance in public or private areas. Muzak is the name of one of the famous providers of background music that is specialized in producing for department stores and elevators. Today “Muzak” is also a pejorative synonym for an aesthetically low-quality department store or elevator music. According to Fehling (in Klußmann, p. 43) the music of Muzak was reduced to several musical criteria. The music consists of a melody played by a solo instrument. Here the singing voice has been eliminated. The frequency bands have been cut in order to fit the bandwidth of 400 to 3000 Hz. The tempo is mostly consistent with 70-80 bpm. Furthermore the harmonies have been reduced in order to maintain simple harmonies throughout the piece of music. The musical works that have been arranged for that purpose are often popular or at least familiar to the public. Last but not least repetitions in the program are not included (Fehling, in Klußmann, p. 43).

In our days however, those criteria are less significant anymore. Today, the music is designed to fit each individual occasion. An important company that acts that way is “DMX”. One of their advertising slogans is as follows:

“ You can ’ t deny the power of music. It makes exercise easier and work more productive. It makes food taste better and traffic less annoying. It makes housecleaning fun and getting up in the morning something to look forward to. Music makes everything better. (see ) ” .

The company DMX sells music for almost every situation in life. They defend their marketing idea as being a fact that has been proven to work at any time at any place in the world for a specific event. On their homepage they cite the psychologist Dr. Adrian North, from the University of Leicester saying that “playing the correct music can lead to a situation where sales increase, customers remain longer, purchase more and employees are more engaged while in the work place1

3.1. How emotions influence acting through music

The situational attitude of a person has a great impact on his or her acceptance of a product (Raab, p. 233; Hesse, p. 159). A person tends to have a positive and open attitude when he or she hears or experiences something he or she is fond of (Raab, p. 218, 232). The person then develops certain emotions, associations or motives when music or noise is heard (Hesse, p. 155). This is supposed to come from the early experiences of people in their infancy. Before a child is born, the first sound it hears is the heartbeat of its mother and then her voice. After its birth the child recognizes from here on the sound of its mother’s voice. For the young child this is a sound that represents protection and ease (Hesse, p. 155-156). This shows that sounds have emotional qualities which can be measured through modern techniques. Various tests and measurements have been made about the influence of music on emotions. The change of heart beat, different skin tensions, goose pimples, by magnetic resonance imaging while hearing music (see studies below). The goal of using background music is to try to enhance the environment by playing a tune that is familiar to the listener.

3.2. How publicity works compared to background music

Publicity acts similar to background music. The goal of publicity is to influence the customer to buy a certain ware with communication that acts through the unconsciousness of the customer. Everyday we perceive an overload of information which we actually don’t need, but which is still meant to be perceived by us. We receive spam in our e-mail accounts, the public busses which are colourfully painted, advertise for a travel agency or other companies, etc. The cities are full of posters, flyers, and other advertising tools. The publicity in our environment acts in the background of our everyday life (Scheier, p. 152). As background music, publicity works implicit (Scheier, p- 158). Each advertisement has a code or a motive that is communicated to the person. In that way it is hoped that the consumer will sooner or later decide to buy that product (Scheier, p. 176).

4. How does background music have an effect on human beings?

Music can have a lot of impact on our organism and psyche. Music therapists use music to heal their patients. North American Indians use music in their rituals to cure ill people. Film music intends to create suspense, fear, hope, freedom, etc. The audience starts to adopt the feelings the actors perceive through the musical atmosphere in the movie. The audience laughs, gets goose pimples or even starts crying. Composers use special musical elements to obtain a specific emotion in the audience. Major tonalities are supposed to evoke amusing, cheeky, serious emotions. Minor tonalities are supposed to sound flattery, sad, tender (Kötter 1997 in Hofmann 2002, p: 10).

4.1. Emotions as a process

Raab & Unger (2005) see emotions as a process. They appear, develop themselves before they finally disappear (Raab & Unger, p: 230). The following example shall elaborate this idea: As long as we are located in a sunny place we feel warmth. As soon as we get out of the sun the feeling of warmth disappears. The same procedure occurs in department stores where temperature, humidity, light, background music and scents create a certain atmosphere. We enter a department store with the intention of buying goods. The climate changes into a buying and selling atmosphere until we leave the store. The room temperature is enjoyable and we perceive among other things music in the background. The goal of creating a space with such ideal conditions is to give the client the impression of feeling comfortable within the department store. Each variable (e.g. light, music, scent) that is supposed to create an ideal climate has to be optimised. In order to optimise the temperature, light and music, studies have been made to find out under which conditions the human being prefers to live and work. It is for example empirically proven that there is an optimal room temperature and humidity in which the human being can achieve his or her best performance. For background music though, optimal conditions have not been found yet (Vanecek1991).

4.2. How can music influence our emotions?

Studies on musical works and their emotional influence on consumer behaviour were made in several supermarkets. Psychologists from the university Leicester let French accordion music play in the supermarket every other day. This led to the result that customers bought much more French than German wine. When Bavarian military music was played, the decisions which wine to buy changed from French to German (Lucas, in Raab, p. 256). How was it possible that the customers apparently changed their mind just because of a change in music which they probably didn’t even notice?

Heiner Gembris talks about certain musical characteristics that show impact tendencies on the human (Gembris in Hofmann 2002, p: 11, Hesse, p. 159). Those musical parameters are the activating and the calming impact of music on the human being. An example for that is the rhythm in music. When the rhythm is accentuated and has a dominant function in the music, the listener will feel an impulse to agitate or to move. This impulse can change into a dance, increased communication, mass events, or other common actions (Hesse, p. 156). Activation can also arise from great sound intensities or fast tempi. High volume or frequent volume changes, not only fast tempi but also frequent tempo changes, a large frequency range or a high degree of complexity are supposed to result in activation. The physical impacts are often muscular tension and relaxation. The breathing might change and eventually synchronize with the rhythm of the played music. Typical music that increases the activation are frequently military marches, dance music, drinking songs, etc. (Hesse, p. 156).

On the other side there are musical characteristics that are more calming than activating. Low sound intensity, slow tempi, soft accentuations, small range in the melody and simple harmonies are musical characteristics of calm sounding music. Further, when the rhythm’s pace corresponds to the frequency of the heart beat at rest, the music will be perceived as calm and relaxing (Hesse, p. 156-157). The various musical characteristics Hesse found are summarized in his table “Musikalische Charakteristik und deren körperliche Wirkung” (see. Fig. 2). The character of that relaxing music though often resembles that of far eastern music. The tempo is calm and there are no great dynamic changes. The melody is pentatonic and has no leading notes and therefore no tension that is formed within the melodies and harmonies. Musically seen, there is no movement in that kind of music. Nothing happens. Through these musical characteristics the music seems to have the same restfulness and quietness and peace as in nature (Hesse, p. 157). Gembris summarizes the relaxing impact of that theory. He says the relaxing aspects in terms of musical parameters is respectively generated by low volume or few volume changes, slow tempi or few tempo changes, or a narrow frequency range or almost no complexity.

5. From influence to control by using background music-musical studies on the influences of music on test subjects

Since it is possible to achieve physical changes through music (such as increased heart beat and pulse, transpiration, goose pimples, etc.), manipulation through music is possible. On the one hand music stylistically has to correspond to the musical tastes of the listeners in order to have an effect or influence them. On the other hand it is advantageous to differentiate the various types of background music by places instead of differentiating the latter by musical parameters. The reason for this kind of classification is that the function and the kind of listening depend on the place where it is played and not on the musical characteristics (Haber, . 216-217). However, there are some activating aspects as well as calming parameters in music that have an influence on the human. How is it then possible to guide or even control the behaviour of a person through music? Various tests have been made and will then be analyzed.



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Manipulation through background music
University of Graz
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Stéphanie Lüders (Author), 2008, Manipulation through background music, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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